Syrian minister says Israel willing to give up Golan
(Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told Turkey that Israel was willing to give back Syria's Golan Heights in return for peace with the Arab state, a Syrian cabinet minister said on Wednesday.
"Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria," Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban told Al Jazeera television in a live interview.
The Israeli position was relayed to President Bashar al-Assad by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who she said will visit Damascus on Saturday.
Damascus will seek details about the Israeli message from Erdogan, said Shaaban, adding that her country had no intention of conducting secret talks with the Jewish state.
"The Israelis talk a lot about peace," she said. "The stance of Damascus is that Syria is always with peace that (guarantees) the return of full rights ... we have negotiated for 10 years for the return of the Golan."
A source close to Erdogan denied that Turkish prime minister had delivered a message to Assad.
Commenting on 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."
Olmert told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth last week, in answer to a question on pulling out of the Golan, that he was working to achieve a "significant move" for peace with Syria.
Syrian-Israeli talks collapsed in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli pullout from the Heights, occupied since 1967. Israel annexed the Golan in 1981 in a move condemned internationally.
As well as strategic high ground, the fertile Golan Heights ensure Israeli control of important water resources in the arid region, land for vineyards, orchards and cattle-grazing.
Around 18,000 Israeli settlers live in the heights among 22,000 Druze who consider themselves Syrians.
International attempts to persuade Syria and Israel to resume talks foundered after the two sides attached conditions to a return to the negotiating table.
Syria wants Israel to commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and wants the United States, Israel's chief ally, to oversee the talks.
Israel wants Syria's ties with Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas to be on the agenda, both arch-foes of Israel. Israel says Syria, which hosts top Hamas officials, is the main supply route for Hezbollah.
Diplomats in Damascus earlier on Wednesday played down the importance of reports in Syrian media about the Israeli offer, saying that the two sides also had yet to agree on how to tackle Syrian ties with Hezbollah and Hamas.
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 but any direct negotiations would be public.
"The president made it clear that third party efforts were fine as long as a framework is agreed upon and Israel commits to a full withdrawal," a source familiar with the annual meeting of the powerful Baath Party central committee said.