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Syria Says Israel Willing to Return Golan Heights for Peace

In an interview published in a Mideast newspaper, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Turkey is mediating between Israel and Syria on a possible peace deal. He said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty. Aya Batrawy has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said Israel has offered to withdraw from the Golan Heights if Syria normalizes relations with the Jewish state. He was quoted in an interview with the Qatar-based Al-Watan newspaper.

Assad said Syria received the news a week ago that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Turkish mediators he is ready to return the Golan Heights.

Israel seized the plateau in the 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, but Israel's move was not accepted by the international community.

But opinion polls indicate that the majority of Israelis are against returning the land, which serves as a buffer with Syria and is an important water source.

Israeli reaction to the news reports mostly condemned the idea of returning the Golan Heights. Israeli officials were quoted in Israel's Haaretz newspaper as saying any decision to hand over the Golan Heights should be approved in a national referendum.

According to Murhaf Jourejati, professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., it is unlikely that Israel will be willing to give up the Golan Heights anytime soon. He said Israel's prime minister does not have the political clout to make such a decision.

"I find it highly unlikely given the weakness of the Olmert government," he said. "I am not sure that Olmert has the mandate from his coalition government. I am not sure he has the OK from his hawkish ally, the Shas Party, and even if he were to resume talks with Syria, I don't think he is politically strong enough to deliver the Golan Heights."

Jourejati also said that although it is a good step for Israel and Syria to talk through Turkey, talks on their own are not enough.

"Talks for the sake of the talks are nice but are not conducive to anything in the absence of political will. However, if there is a deal between Syria and Israel it will have major ramifications for the region. The political map of the region would look entirely different," he added.

Mr. Olmert is said to believe that talks with Syria could lure Damascus away from support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas and from Lebanon's Hezbollah. But Syrian officials have said they will not hold direct talks with Israel if these jeopardize Palestinian negotiations for an independent Palestinian state.

Assad also told the Qatari newspaper that Syria will not talk directly to Israel until a new U.S. administration is in place. He said the United States is the only party qualified to sponsor direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Israel and Syria held direct peace negotiations in 2000, but the talks broke down over how much of the Golan Heights Israel was ready to cede to Syria.

Mr. Olmert's office had no comment on the Syrian president's remarks, but Israel has repeatedly said it wants peace with Syria.

In September last year, Israel bombed a Syrian site it said was a nuclear reactor Damascus was building with North Korean help. Syria strongly denied the claim.