JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – An Israeli newspaper said on Friday that Israel has told Syria it is prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for lasting peace, adding to growing signals that Israel is looking to resume negotiations.
Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sent messages through foreign envoys to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Israel is ready to “fulfill its part” in a peace deal, even if it means giving up the strategic Golan Heights, captured in the Six Day War of June 1967.
Spokesmen for Olmert and the Foreign Ministry declined comment on the report although a Foreign Ministry spokesman noted Israel had long been willing to give Syria the Golan area, which commands the approaches to Damascus, in return for peace.
The Yedioth report, quoting an unidentified senior diplomat who it said was involved in the contacts with Syria, said Olmert contacted Assad with the help of German and Turkish leaders but has yet to hear back from the Syrian president.
Israel’s price for handing back the Golan would likely be very high. Yedioth said the Israeli message to Damascus was that Syria must abandon its alliances with Iran, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militants.
Yedioth Ahronot also reported that during an hour-long conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush in April, Washington gave Israel the green light to begin negotiations with Syria in an attempt to distance Syria from Iran.
Earlier this week Olmert sought to calm speculation in Israel that war with Syria was imminent. “Israel does not want war with Syria and we need to be careful to avoid a scenario of miscalculations that could cause the security situation to worsen,” Olmert said on Wednesday.
Assad has expressed interest in resuming talks with Israel that stalled seven years ago over the extent of an Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights, but has also hinted Syria could resort to force if it deemed diplomacy a dead end.
Olmert has demanded Syria cease supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian militants as a condition for restarting talks.
Israeli officials said last month there was a growing consensus within the Israeli government that Syria was serious about resuming negotiation with the Jewish state.
Some Israeli intelligence officials, political sources say, remain concerned, however, that Syrian military preparations may not be defensive and have warned Israel’s political leaders to beware that Damascus might see advantage in an attack.
A poll in Israel’s Maariv newspaper on Friday showed that half of all Israelis support at least a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Only one Israeli in 10 would be willing to give all of the territory back to Syria.