Report: Olmert Willing to Return Golan Heights to Syria for Peace Deal

Israel sent secret messages to Syria recently signaling willingness to give up the captured Golan Heights in return for a peace deal that would require Syria to distance itself from Iran, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had German and Turkish diplomats relay to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel is willing to hold direct peace negotiations and give up the strategic plateau, seized in the 1967 Mideast war, the Yediot Ahronot daily said, quoting officials close to Olmert.

Syria did not respond to Olmert's messages, the report said.

Assad has recently urged Israel to return to the negotiating table. But he has not publicly indicated a willingness to accommodate Israel's oft-stated insistence that there could be no talks unless Damascus scaled back its ties with Iran, its main ally in the region, and stopped backing Lebanese and Palestinian militants committed to Israel's destruction.

Olmert's office had no comment on the Yediot report.

Yediot said President Bush gave Olmert the green light for negotiations with Syria in an hourlong phone conversation last month. The two leaders will further discuss the possibility of talks during their scheduled meeting at the White House on June 19, the report said.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv was not immediately available for comment on the newspaper report.

In the past, Israeli and U.S. officials have said privately that Washington does not want Israel to engage Syria, because of its ties to radical elements and meddling in Lebanon, a former proxy. But the Bush administration is also under pressure from allies, lawmakers and advisers who think Washington should warm ties with Syria in an effort to isolate Iran.

Israel and Syria have tried several times in the past to reach a peace accord, which both sides understand would require an Israeli pullout from the Golan. The last round of talks broke down in 2000 over the scope of the withdrawal, and Israel's demand for normalized relations.

Relations have steadily deteriorated since.

Syria backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in their war with Israel last summer, and harbors the leadership of the militantly anti-Israel Hamas, which shares power in the Palestinian government.

After the Lebanon war, Assad offered to renew negotiations, but Israel dismissed his overtures as a tactic to ease his regime's isolation in the West. But abruptly last week, a senior Israeli official said Olmert was assessing prospects for renewed talks.

It is not clear what drove this change. The flawed war made Olmert too politically weak at home to advance his proposed withdrawal from large swaths of the West Bank. New negotiations with Syria could help to dispel the widespread image in Israel that he has no political agenda.

Alternatively, he might have reached the conclusion that Syria is serious about making peace, or that Israel should not, in principle, rebuff peace overtures.

Reports about possible diplomatic movement on the Syrian front have proliferated over the past week in an atmosphere charged by a recent Syrian military buildup and military preparations on both sides of the border. On Wednesday, Olmert, seeking to ease the volatility, said Israel was interested in peace with Damascus and had no belligerent intentions.

Giving back the Golan, which Israel annexed in 1981, is not a popular concept in Israel. The heights dominate much of northern Israel, are adjacent to Israel's largest source of drinking water, and are home to wineries and popular tourism sites.

Olmert's weak domestic standing could make it even more difficult to push a withdrawal ahead if the current diplomatic feelers evolved into something more substantial.

A poll by the Teleseker company published in the Maariv newspaper on Friday showed that 84 percent of the 500 Israelis surveyed oppose a full withdrawal from the Golan. Forty-four percent opposed any Golan pullback, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.