A former U.S. envoy and Mideast negotiator called Thursday for peace talks in which Israel would yield the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a peace treaty and withdrawal of support for Hezbollah militants, but said Syria was not likely to negotiate with Israel without American presence.
Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel, told the House Mideast subcommittee that Israel had enlisted Turkey to help register its interest in peace negotiations to Syria.
But Indyk, who was a U.S. negotiator during former President Bill Clinton's efforts in 2000 to mediate an agreement, said, "Syria will not sit down with Israel without the United States in the room."
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office on Thursday said that Israel was genuinely interested in restarting talks with Syria.
Earlier Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had offered an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for full peace with its Arab neighbor.
Israel would not comment on the withdrawal offer, but did say it was interested in negotiating with Damascus.
"We are interested in peace with Syria. We know what the Syrians expect from negotiations and the Syrians knows what Israel wants from the negotiations," said Mark Regev, a spokesman of Olmert.
Israel seized the plateau, seen as a vital military asset, during the 1967 Six-Day War. Talks between Israel and Syria on the issue were last held in 2000, but broke down over the extent of an Israeli pullback at the Sea of Galilee.
Speaking in an interview published Thursday in the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan, Assad said that the message had been passed from Israel to Syria via Turkey, often seen as a mediator between the two enemy states.
Assad said that intensive contacts between Israel and Syria began following the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. He said that the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "announced Israel's readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. Turkey entered the picture a year ago, in April 2007 to be precise. Olmert stressed to the Turkish prime minister his readiness to return the Golan."
The Syrian leader said Erdogan had delivered Olmert's message a week ago. "After that," Assad said, "we heard Olmert's statement that 'We know what Syria wants and it knows what we want'."
Olmert made the comment in an interview to Haaretz to mark the Passover holiday.
The Syrian media had previously reported that Erdogan phoned Assad and told him that Olmert was willing to give up the Golan.
Erdogan is expected to arrive in Damascus over the weekend for the opening of a Turkish-Syrian business forum, and will reportedly be meeting with Assad to discuss the talks, among other issues.
Acknowledging talks through a third party, Assad told a closed meeting of the ruling Baath party on Sunday that an Israeli commitment to withdraw fully from the Golan had to be a basis for talks, and any direct negotiations would be public.
Iran warns Syria against ties with U.S., Israel
Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday warned Syria against becoming closer with Israel and the United States and urged Islamic nations to stand up against Western 'conspiracies and wars.'
Following the Iranian leader's talks Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Ahmadinejad's office issued a statement calling on Middle Eastern nations to "stand on guard in the face of the conspiracies and civil wars our enemies our planning and prepare to cause them ro fail."
Ahmadinejad warned that the United States was planning to involve itself in Middle Eastern regional matters, but said its policies on Iran and Syria were failing.
U.S. role 'vital'
Following contacts between Israel and Syria, officials say significant U.S. involvement will probably be necessary for negotiations to move ahead, and that Syria is still demanding such involvement.
Both Israeli and foreign experts on Syria told Haaretz on Wednesday that a change in the American position was not on the horizon, and that no details on the Israeli position had been included in Wednesday's Syrian media reports on Israel's willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Wednesday that if Israel were serious about making peace with Syria and withdrawing from the Golan, there was nothing to prevent the renewal of negotiations. But he added that Syria was not prepared to hold talks with Israel that would harm the Palestinian negotiating track.
Speaking at a news conference in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki, Moallem said the Syrian position was that Israel had to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967, not the international boundary. His statements were carried by the official Syrian news agency SANA.
In response to reports that Olmert had agreed to withdraw from the Golan, the head of the Knesset House Committee, MK David Tal, said he hopes to quickly pass a bill requiring an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to be dependent on a national referendum.
Tal said an evacuation of the Golan would draw Hezbollah to the region. The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, said "Olmert's willingness to come down from the Golan is an expression of unprecedented political and security anarchy." He said Israel could not protect itself and its water sources without the Golan.
MK Arieh Eldad (National Union-National Religious Party) called on opposition leader and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately announce "that he would not be obligated to any suicidal concession by Olmert."
In contrast, MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz) called on Olmert "to take advantage of the opportunity and conduct quick and intensive negotiations with the Syrians." Such talks would "lead to a dramatic change in [Syria's] relationship with extremist elements in the area," Beilin said.
When asked about Wednesday's reports, Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said: "I have nothing to add beyond what the prime minister said on Friday in his interviews with the Israeli press about his desire for peace with Syria."
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