BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Two independent Syrian publications reported Wednesday that Israel has passed a message to Damascus through Turkey’s prime minister that it is prepared to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty.
Neither the Syrian government nor Israeli officials would comment on the reports. But, if confirmed, the message could be a sign of progress in back-channel contacts between the two nations, years after formal peace negotiations broke down.
The reports come after both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said their countries had exchanged messages. Olmert told Israeli newspapers last week that the messages clarified what each would expect from a future peace deal.
“They know what we want from them, and I know full well what they want from us,” Olmert told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “Israel is open to peace with Syria,” he told another paper, Maariv.
Assad on Sunday told officials of the ruling Baath party that the message exchange explored the possibility of resuming peace talks. Israel “knows well what is accepted and not accepted by Syria,” he said.
Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations broke down in 2000 over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Syria demands a full return of the territory, but Israel wanted to keep a small strip of land along the Sea of Galilee to ensure its control of the lake.
The peace contacts are taking place despite high tensions between the two countries in recent months, largely stemming from an Israeli air attack on a Syrian military facility in September. Some foreign reports have said the target was a nuclear installation Syria was building with North Korean assistance, a claim Damascus denies.
The reports Wednesday appeared in Champress, an online Syrian news Web site, and in the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, which is independent but close to Assad’s government. The publications do not officially reflect government thinking, but in a country where state security generally monitors and controls the news flow, such dissemination indicates at least tacit government consent. That the government would allow the reports to be published is significant, since it could raise expectations among the Syrian public in a country where the state often warns that Israel is not ready for peace.
The Champress report quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Turkish mediation has succeeded and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has informed Damascus that he won Olmert’s acceptance of a full withdrawal from the Golan in return for a peace treaty with Syria.
Al-Watan quoted “informed sources” as saying Erdogan contacted Assad on Tuesday morning to relay the same news. Neither report specified how much of the Golan Israel was prepared to return or report on Israeli conditions for a withdrawal. Israel has demanded Syria agree to a full peace and halt its support for militant groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Erdogan is due to visit Damascus on Saturday for talks with Assad.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli prime minister’s office said it had nothing to say on the report beyond what Olmert disclosed in media interviews late last week. Israeli government spokesman David Baker also would not comment on whether Erdogan was a conduit for messages between the two countries.
Syrian officials declined comment Wednesday on the reports. Turkish officials could not be reached on Wednesday, which was a public holiday in Turkey.
In October, Assad said Turkey was mediating between Syria and Israel, adding that Syria seeks “a clear declaration by Israeli officials of their desire for peace” and “guarantees that the full territory would return.”
Syria has had poor relations with the United States and Washington’s regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, particularly over Lebanon. So moving the peace process with Israel forward could help break Damascus’ isolation. For Olmert, who has been politically weakened over the past year, progress could boost his standing at home.
The Syrian reports created a furor in the Israeli political arena.
Lawmaker Yuval Steinitz of the hawkish Likud Party accused Olmert of “unprecedented recklessness” with the message exchange. “Without the Golan, Israel will be hard-pressed to defend its existence, and protect the Sea of Galilee and water sources,” said Steinitz, former chairman of the Israeli parliament’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He spoke on Israeli Army radio.
On the other end of the political spectrum, dovish lawmaker Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party urged the prime minister to take advantage of the opportunity to conduct intensive, fast-track negotiations with Damascus. “There could be a rare historic opportunity here, in the waning months of the Bush administration, to reach such an accord, whose implications could be far-reaching with regard to Israeli-Palestinian peace, and Syria’s relations with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah,” Beilin told Army Radio.