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Israel Offers to Open Peace Talks With Syria

Israel is offering an olive branch to Syria. But as Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the gaps between the two countries remain wide.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resume peace talks that collapsed seven years ago. In an interview with the Arab TV network Al Arabiya, Mr. Olmert said he is ready to sit down and talk about peace, not war.

Negotiations with Syria would center on the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured during the Six Day War in 1967. Syria has demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from the territory in exchange for full peace.

Mr. Olmert has made several offers for peace talks in recent months, but they have not borne fruit because he attached tough preconditions: Syria must scale back ties with Iran and end support for Islamic militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"We will of course be happy to negotiate with the Syrians. We would like to make peace with Syria," said Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Herzog. "We have a major problem with Bashar al-Assad. In order to move forward, I think Bashar al-Assad needs to show some measures of seriousness about his change in attitude."

Syria says it is ready for peace talks, but without preconditions.

Israeli peace activist Galia Golan believes Israel should be more flexible.

"Well I do think it is an opportunity for Israel to reach a peace agreement with the last Arab country with which we are officially at war," said Golan.

Mr. Olmert is interested in negotiations because he believes it would weaken the radical forces in the region by bringing Syria into the camp of the moderates.

But U.S. officials say such negotiations would relieve international pressure on Syria over its attempts to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon.