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Israel Ready to Discuss Golan Heights in Peace Talks with Syria


An Israeli Cabinet member says the government wants to open peace talks with Syria and is prepared to discuss terms for returning the Golan Heights. The Cabinet minister's comments follow a newspaper report on Israeli overtures to Damascus. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit says Israel is interested in resuming negotiations with Syria based on the formula of land for peace. The talks would focus on the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967.

Sheetrit told Israel Radio that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is prepared to negotiate, and the ball is now in Syria's court. There was no immediate response from Damascus.

Sheetrit was responding to an Israeli newspaper report which said that Mr. Olmert has sent secret messages to Syria saying he is prepared to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for full peace. According to the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot, the messages were sent through German and Turkish diplomats.

Sheetrit said an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would have to be tested over a long period of time.

He says that under a peace agreement, Syria should lease the Golan Heights to Israel for 25 years. If peace endures during that period, Israel would withdraw from the territory.

The newspaper said Mr. Olmert set down tough conditions for peace talks: Syria must scale back ties with Iran and end support for Islamic militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The offer reflects the thinking in some Israeli circles that peace talks with Syria would weaken radical forces in the region by bringing Damascus into the camp of the moderates.

The United States had no immediate reaction to the latest reports. Washington has been pressing Syria to do more to halt the flow of weapons into Iraq, and end its interference in Lebanon.

The Bush administration has been publicly cool to the idea of a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks.

Israeli opposition leaders say it would be a grave mistake for Israel to rescue Syria from its diplomatic isolation, which stems largely from its behavior in Lebanon and Iraq.

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