Officials: U.S. Vital to Relaunching Syria Talks

Syrian FM Moalem: Peace talks could resume if Israel were serious about withdrawing from Golan.

Officials following contacts between Israel and Syria 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 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 for talks with Israel that would hurt 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.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip 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 Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the talks, among other issues. The Syrian media had reported that Erdogan phoned Assad and told him that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was willing to give up the Golan.

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.

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."