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Syria is willing to consider peace and gradual normalization with Israel, according to Gabrielle Rifkind of the Oxford Research Group, who met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in December. Speaking with Haaretz over e-mail, the conflict resolution specialist said that following an Israeli withdrawal from half the territory it holds on the Golan Heights, the two states would declare an end to the state of enmity between them as a first step.

According to Rifkind, who met the minister along with a group of conflict resolution experts, Muallem suggested that Syria was prepared to consider a phased approach to the return of the Golan Heights.

"There could be stages of withdrawal, the timing of which could involve a form of normalization," he reportedly said. "Half of the Golan could lead to an end to enmity; three quarters of the Golan, to a special interest section in the U.S. embassy in Damascus: a full withdrawal would allow a Syrian embassy in Israel."

Rifkind, who is the director of the Middle East Program at Oxford Research Group and who traveled to Damascus with a delegation who had conversations with the Syrian foreign minister over a period of time, recently published an article in the Guardian on her last visit there. She says that Muallem stressed that Syria was serious about peace over the Golan Heights.

But he also said that "for peace-making, Israel needs to be ready to recognize that Syria is entitled to every inch of the Golan, but we wish to engage in talks". "For us," he added, "the land is sacred and a matter of honor."

The Syrian foreign minister also emphasized the role of Turkey as third party mediators, as they have already begun working on the issue of defining the 1967 border. This line has never been agreed and the unresolved issue is the demarcation of the line on the water between Syria and Israel, in particular who would control the Lake Kinneret shore.

In talks during the tenure of Ehud Barak as prime minister, the idea was floated of establishing of an expert committee that would draw the border along the eastern shoreline of the lake.

Muallem said Turkey dealt fairly when mediating talks while Ehud Olmert was prime minister and Damascus does not wish to see their neighbor replaced. He said that despite internal dissent, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer had been sent to Turkey to try and repair the relationship.

He told Rifkind that "Syria does not see direct talks taking place through Turkey, but Ankara could play a part in devising a formula for the demarcation line".

He added that the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had felt cheated because they had been close to completing the delineation of the border when Israel launched its attack on Gaza.

The next stage, Muallem said, "would entail direct talks with America to address the security concerns. The key issue here is U.S. flights over the Golan in order to provide security".

When asked about a change of relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah, he said that it will not negotiate any change in its relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas until after the Golan is returned. "Key questions, such as Syria's support for Hamas, Hezbollah and its policy to Iran - would only be answered after withdrawal," he said.

Rifkind told Haaretz that in the assessment of the group that met with Muallem "this is particularly hard for Israel to swallow. This is because Israel believes that Syria plays an active role in providing passage for Iranian weapons to these groups. Syria has also recently been involved in the secret transfer of mobile surface to surface Syrian-made 250 kilometer missiles to Hezbollah. It seems that one of the tragedies of the region is that an outstretched hand for peace-making coincides with increased military pressure, and this is seen to be the route to the peace table."

She added that making peace with Syria would not be easy but could pay off in the long run.

"From a conflict resolution perspective, reaching out to Syria will involve bold steps, and experience would suggest that if Syria and Israel managed to establish an agreement on the Golan, the view from the leadership may be significantly different," she said. "There could be a potential role for Syria as a mediator between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah which could drastically improve the chances of a long-term truce - or even a permanent resolution - between these parties."