Israel should drop its preconditions and immediately resume peace talks with Syria, Labor Party MK Danny Yatom told Israel Radio on Saturday.

Yatom, a confidant of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, also said that it would be easier to reach a deal with Syria than with the Palestinians, and that progress with Syria could accelerate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"I think the time has come to renew negotiations with Syria," he said. "After Annapolis, we need to take advantage of the new atmosphere."

The radio said Yatom was briefed by Barak after the defense minister returned from the international Mideast conference held earlier this week in Annapolis, Maryland.

It was not immediately clear whether Yatom spoke on behalf of Barak, or expressed his personal view. Yatom said he has not discussed the matter with Barak, but he estimated that Barak, his party chief, would not turn down the idea.

The Annapolis conference focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track but also Syria sent a representative, raising hopes that it could be persuaded to break its alliance with Iran if talks with Israel resume.

An Annapolis follow-up conference, tentatively scheduled for Moscow in the spring, may address the Israeli-Syrian conflict directly.

Yatom, a former chief of Israel's Mossad spy agency, said the government should drop a series of preconditions and start talks with Syria immediately.

In the past, Israel has demanded as a precondition for talks that the Syrian government withdraw support for militant groups, including the Palestinian factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

In exchange for peace, Syria wants Israel to return all of the Golan Heights, a plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Yatom said that in March 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed to Syria, with Israel's backing, that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders, except for a very slight modification in the northeastern part of the Sea of Galilee.

Barak was prime minister at the time, and Yatom his top aide and senior negotiator with Syria.

Yatom suggested that negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians be conducted simultaneously, but said it would be easier to reach a deal with Damascus.

"Between us and Syria, there's only the issue of a border, and we were very close in March 2000," he said. "The negotiations with Syria, if resumed, will also accelerate the negotiations with the Palestinians."

Palestinian officials fear that talks with Israel would stall if the Israeli-Syrian track was revived.

"Israel is manipulating the negotiations by talking about tracks," said Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Syrian-Israeli path is the easiest excuse, and an old one.

However, he said the Palestinians would not oppose parallel negotiations on both tracks.

Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a Syrian political analyst close to the regime, said the Israeli position was expected after the Annapolis conference that sought to reopen dialogue between Israel and Syria.

"This is their chance to launch peace negotiations with Syria," he said, adding that Syria has proven to be the problem of the region and its solution as well.

Syria: Annapolis summit a defeat for the Palestinians

A Syrian state-run newspaper on Saturday described this week's U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference as a defeat for the Palestinians and for peace in the region.

In a surprise move lauded by participants at the time, Syria took part in the U.S.-brokered Mideast conference in Annapolis last week where Israel and the Palestinians announced that peace talks would resume after a violent seven-year freeze and agreed to try and reach an agreement by the end of 2008.

"The U.S. administration has the right to consider the Annapolis meeting a brilliant victory, but not for the Palestinian people ... only for Israel," said the front page editorial in the Tishrin daily.

"While the Bush administration and Israel may consider what happened and what could happen to destroy the Palestinian cause a victory, we consider it a defeat for a just and comprehensive peace," Tishrin said. "That peace," it added, "can only be achieved by ending Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories."

The newspaper, which reflects government thinking, criticized U.S. President George W. Bush's statement at the opening session of the Annapolis meeting in which he referred to Israel as a Jewish state, calling it "a consecration of Israeli racism."

It described the conference as "a carnival that reminds us of similar celebrations since Oslo until today, and of agreements that with time have gone with the wind."

Syria, which agreed to attend the conference only after receiving assurances that the issue of the Golan Heights was added to the agenda, left Annapolis without a specific promise to restart stalled talks with Israel.

In the immediate aftermath of the conference, however, Syrian papers praised the event and urged a more activist role for the U.S. to promote peace in the region.

Syrian President Bashar Assad discussed the Annapolis meeting late Friday with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Syria's official news agency said. SANA said Ban applauded Syria's constructive participation in the meeting.