Olmert Exploring Third-party Talks With Damascus

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is exploring, via a third party, the possibility of resuming peace talks with Syria.

A government source said there was no direct contact between Israeli and Syrian officials, "but a very serious assessment is underway."

What is being assessed is what Israel would get in return for pulling out of the Golan Heights, the nature of future bilateral relations and whether Syria would consider cutting its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations, Israel's main enemies in the region.

Olmert has recently referred to the possible resumption of talks with Syria in closed meetings. "The price is clear. There may be a debate on the payment terms, discounts etc. but the main question is what Israel would receive in return. Will it receive peace like [the one it has] with Egypt, peace like Britain and France have, or a deception: Give us the Golan, and all you'll get is an alliance between Syria and Iran and Hamas headquarters in Damascus," he said.

Olmert was persuaded to reexamine the Syrian option mainly by the numerous warnings that Syria's army was gaining strength and the danger of an eruption of hostilities in the North.

Olmert sent several messages to Damascus, warning Assad of a "miscalculation" that would lead to an unnecessary clash between the two countries.

However, he also wishes to examine the option of negotiating with the Syrians, to show - in the case of a crisis - that Israel had tried to prevent it.

"My duty as prime minister is to examine [the negotiations option] even if intelligence evaluations say it's a deception and even when Western and other leaders warn me," Olmert said in the closed meetings.

Publicly, Olmert's attitude toward the Syrians has remained cool. Yesterday he told a U.S. Congress committee, "I'm interested in making peace with Syria and it appears that the present Syrian regime, which supports terror, is not interested in reaching an agreement."

Israel conducted peace negotiations with Syria for about nine years, from 1991 to 2000, under five prime ministers: Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Israel agreed in the talks to pull out of the entire Golan Heights, and Syria agreed to hold diplomatic ties and security arrangements including American observers on the early-warning station on Mount Hermon.

The talks snagged over the control of the Kinneret's northeastern coastline. Syrian President Bashar Assad has offered to resume peace talks in recent months, while at once threatening to take the Golan Heights back by force.

Olmert objected to the talks at first, pinning his position on the American objection and Syria's support of terror. Later, however, he decided to examine Damascus' intentions.