Official: Olmert Considering Peace Talks With Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is exploring the possibility of renewing peace talks with Syria and has indicated he is willing to give up the Golan Heights, a senior Israeli official said Thursday.

Israel seized the strategic plateau, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, and it has remained a central obstacle to better relations between the longtime foes.

Olmert has asked a third party for information on what Syria would offer in such negotiations, the official said, insisting on anonymity because the disclosure was unauthorized. The third party was not identified.

Israel wants Syria to cut ties with Iran and the anti-Israel militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, the official said.

Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin declined comment on whether Israel had made any overtures to Syria. But she said Olmert has repeatedly said he is "in favor of peace with Syria."

"But he questions the desire of the present Syrian government to arrive at a resolution and not just participate in a process," Eisin said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad recently said he is willing to renew talks with Israel. Israeli officials have dismissed the comments as a tactic to ease his regime's international isolation.

Olmert has indicated in closed meetings that Israel would be willing to give up the Golan Heights in talks with Syria, the official said.

"The main question is what Israel will get in response," the official added, saying Israel fears that Syria would maintain its ties with Iran and anti-Israel militant groups after a deal.

There was no immediate response from Damascus.

Earlier this year, a former Israeli diplomat and Syrian businessman said they had in secret talks worked out the framework for a peace deal between the sides. The men said the talks were conducted with the knowledge of government officials, though neither government approved the deal.

In the course of their talks, Syrian Ibrahim Suleiman and Israeli Alon Liel drew up a tentative peace proposal that called for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, and for Syria to end support for armed extremists, including Hezbollah guerrillas who warred with Israel last summer.

Israel has agreed in previous peace talks to give up the Golan Heights but the talks stalled over the scope of such a pullout. Israel annexed the territory in 1981 and about 18,000 Jewish settlers live on the plateau. The area has remained quiet since the 1973 Mideast War.

Israeli military officials have recently expressed concern about Syrian troop movements not far from the border with Israel. Officials close to Olmert have said he wants to assure Damascus that Israel is not interested in a military conflict.