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Science, Sport and Culture Minister Ghaleb Majadele (Labor) on Wednesday asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to send him to Damascus as a goodwill emissary.

Majadele told Haaretz that he had urged Olmert to respond favorably to Assad's calls for peace in his speech Tuesday to the Syrian parliament.

He also asked Olmert to declare his government's willingness to "make significant and painful territorial concessions, as the late [prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin proposed, for the sake of a diplomatic arrangement that would lead to relations with Syria and to peace and stability in the entire region."

According to Majadele, "the Syrian president's speech obligates Israel to respond clearly according to the principle established by Rabin, that the extent of withdrawal would conform to the extent of peace."

Majadele added that "the price of war is always higher than the price of peace - as high as that can be." The minister also said that alongside painful territorial concessions, "which would give hope to the Syrian people, the security of the State of Israel must be ensured."

Majadele said he believes talks with the Syrians, and even more so a diplomatic arrangement with it, would have a positive impact on the Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab channels in general.

An Israeli official said Wednesday that Israel and Syria have been in contact through third parties for a while, but the mediators have been unable to get the two sides to resume peace talks.

Assad said Tuesday that a third country recently offered to serve as a mediator with Israel. The country, which he did not identify, has mediated in the past, he said. Israeli media speculated Assad was referring to Turkey.

UN envoy: Syria interested in peace talks with IsraelThe UN's Mideast envoy said Wednesday that after recent contacts with Syrian officials, he believes Damascus is interested in restarting peace talks with Israel.

Syria's UN ambassador said his country was prepared to enter a peace process if Israel would acknowledge publicly its willingness to withdraw from all Syrian territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

UN Mideast envoy Michael Williams said he traveled to Syria last month and held talks with at least two senior government officials there - Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

"It did seem to me that there was an interest on the Syrian side in looking at the possibilities involved in negotiations with Israel," Williams told reporters. "I think they are interested in opening negotiations."

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a speech Tuesday that Damascus was ready for peace talks with Israel, but only in the presence of an honest broker and with conditions. He said Syria wants certain guarantees from Israel, namely a promise for full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured in 1967.

Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said Assad's position was not a shift.

"The Syrian will for engagement in the peace process has been repeatedly stated at the highest level of the Syrian authorities many times since the year 2000," he said.

Peace talks broke down in 2000 after Syria demanded that Israel withdraw from the Golan. Israel offered to go back to the international border, but Syria insisted on also controlling another small strip of territory - the east bank of the Kinneret, which it captured during the 1948-49 war. Talks broke down on that point and over the extent of peaceful relations Syria would offer.

Ja'afari said the interesting point in Assad's speech was that he shot down rumors of any secret negotiations between Syria and Israel.

"He stated two, three times yesterday in his speech that there couldn't be, there wouldn't, and there shouldn't be any secret negotiations between Syria and Israel with regard to the peace process," Ja'afari said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week offered to hold direct peace talks, but Syria rebuffed the idea. Olmert said Syria was insisting talks be mediated by the Americans, who are not interested.

The U.S. has accused Syria of destructive meddling in Lebanon and Iraq and supporting militant groups such as Hezbollah and Palestinian extremists.

On Monday, U.S. President Bush proposed an international Mideast peace conference to be held later this year which would include Israelis, Palestinians and some of their Arab neighbors. U.S. officials said it was unlikely that Syria would attend.

Olmert has signaled he would be ready to give up the Golan, but he says peace talks cannot take place as long as Syria maintains its close ties with Hamas, Hezbollah and other violent anti-Israel groups.

Assad has not publicly addressed Israel's demand to stop supporting those groups and scale back Syrian ties with Iran, its main ally in the region.

UN has no new information on abducted IDF troopsThe United Nations has not been able to gleam any information on the whereabouts or health of two Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon a year ago, UN envoy Michael Williams said Wednesday.

"We have not so far been able to expedite the release of the two soldiers," said Williams, "I bitterly regret that, and regret also that we have not been able to establish proof of life."

The two soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, were captured in July 2006 in a cross-border raid by the militant group Hezbollah, triggering a month-long war in Lebanon between Israeli and Hezbollah forces.

The fighting ended with a UN-brokered ceasefire and led to the deployment of some 15,000 UN troops to southern Lebanon.

Williams briefed the council on UN efforts to win the release of the two soldiers. He said the UN has also been trying to win the release of Lebanese detained by Israel.