The Prime Minister's Office has strongly denied that Israel relayed a message to Syria, accepting its calls to renew peace negotiations.

The bureau responded to questions raised yesterday by a statement made by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, following a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Pelosi said she had relayed a message from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to the effect that Israel was ready for peace talks with Syria.

The Prime Minister's Office was quick to issue a denial, stating that "what was discussed with the House speaker did not include any change in Israel's policy, as it has been presented to international parties involved in the matter."

In a special statement of clarification, the bureau stressed that Olmert had told Pelosi that Israel continued to regard Syria as "part of the axis of evil and a party encouraging terrorism in the entire Middle East."

According to sources at the Prime Minister's Office, "Pelosi took part of the things that were said in the meeting, and used what suited her."

The same sources explained that the decision to issue a statement of denial stemmed from questions from Israeli and foreign press regarding a change in Israel's official stance on negotiations with Syria.

The California Democrat, who headed a bipartisan delegation on a tour of the region, including Syria, had come under strong criticism from U.S. President George W. Bush. Bush considers any high-level contacts with Syria as undermining the pressure on Damascus to cease support for terrorism and as undermining Lebanese sovereignty.

Pelosi's visit to Syria was the latest challenge to the White House by congressional Democrats, who are taking a more assertive role in influencing policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war.

The Prime Minister's Office said: "We have not intervened in the internal debate in the United States and we did not harm anyone. We simply announced what had taken place in the meeting [Olmert-Pelosi] on the basis of notes that are identical to those Pelosi has."

Pelosi met with Assad yesterday and said that the Syrian leader was willing to resume peace talks with Israel.

"We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process. He's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," Pelosi said.

The House speaker also said that she and other members of her congressional delegation raised with Assad their concern about militants crossing from Syria into Iraq, as well as the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah and Hamas.

The speaker said the delegation conveyed to Assad the importance of Syria's role with Hamas in promoting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

She did not reveal how Assad responded to the delegation's message on Hamas and Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Syrian sources yesterday expressed their uncertainty that Olmert's statements were credible.

Syrian Information Minister, Muhsen Bilal, told reporters in Damascus yesterday, that Israel needs to prove its seriousness in peace.