Apr 23, 2008

Israel 'Ready To Return Golan'

BBC News

Turkey's prime minister has told Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace, reports say.

The al-Watan newspaper quoted "informed sources" as saying Recep Tayyip Erdogan had telephoned Mr Assad on Tuesday morning to inform him of the offer.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declined to comment.

Israel and Syria remain technically at war although both sides have recently spoken of their desire for peace.

The Syrian government has insisted that peace talks can be resumed only on the basis of Israel returning the Golan Heights, which it seized in 1967.

Israeli authorities, for their part, have demanded that Syria abandon its support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups before any agreement.

The last peace talks between the two countries broke down in 2000.

'Friendly parties'

In an article on its website on Wednesday, al-Watan said: "Mr Erdogan contacted President Bashar Assad yesterday morning to tell him that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is ready for full withdrawal from the occupied Syrian Golan in return for peace with Syria."

A Syrian television station and the news agency Champress also carried similar reports about Mr Erdogan and the reported offer by Israel. The Syrian media is highly controlled and often reflects the official line.

Mr Erdogan is due to visit the Syrian capital, Damascus, this weekend to attend the opening of the first Syrian-Turkish economic forum.

Mr Olmert's office did not deny the Syrian reports, choosing only to state that they "refuse to comment on the matter".

In June 2007, Israel's deputy prime minister confirmed his government had sent secret messages to Syria about the possibility of resuming peace negotiations through third-parties, one of whom was widely believed to be Turkey.

The Syrian reports also came only days after the President Assad told the Central Committee of the Baath Party that "friendly parties were making efforts to organise contacts between Syria and Israel".

"Syria is in favour of a just and lasting peace. Syria rejects any secret negotiations or contacts with Israel. Any action taken by Syria in this area will be revealed to the public," he said on Sunday.


On Thursday, Mr Olmert told Israel's Channel 10 television that he was interested in peace with Syria, and that both sides knew what the other wanted.

"Very clearly we want peace with the Syrians and we are taking all manner of actions to this end," he said. "President Bashar al-Assad knows precisely what our expectations are and we know his. I won't say more."

The former US President, Jimmy Carter, who held talks with the Syrian leader recently has said he believes "about 85%" of the differences between Israel and Syria have already been resolved, including borders, water rights, the establishment of a security zone and on the presence of international forces.

"[Mr Assad said] the only major difference in starting good-faith talks was that Israel insisted that there will be no public acknowledgment that the talks were going on when Syria insisted that the talks would not be a secret," Mr Carter said earlier this week.

Mr Carter said it was now "just a matter of reconvening the talks and concluding an agreement" between the neighbouring countries.

The Syrian reports on Wednesday have sparked outrage in the Israeli parliament, however, where several MPs said they would seek to accelerate the passage of a bill requiring any withdrawal from the Golan to be dependent on a referendum.

"Olmert's readiness to withdraw from the Golan represents an unprecedented political and national abandon," Yuval Steinitz of Likud told the Haaretz newspaper.

Correspondents say returning the Golan to Syria is not a popular concept in Israel, and the details of a possible Israeli withdrawal have bedevilled past negotiations between the two countries.