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Page last updated at 20:30 GMT, Wednesday, 23 April 2008 21:30 UK

Israel 'ready to return Golan'

Israeli troops in the Golan observe Syria (archive)
Returning the Golan Heights to Syria is not a popular concept in Israel

Israel has passed a message to Syria that it would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace, according to a Syrian government minister.

The expatriates minister, Buthaina Shaaban, said the message had been passed on by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

She said Mr Erdogan had informed the Syrian President Bashar Assad of the offer by telephone on Tuesday morning.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declined to comment.

Israel and Syria remain technically at war although both sides have recently spoken of their desire for peace.

The Syrian government has insisted that peace talks can be resumed only on the basis of Israel returning the Golan Heights, which it seized in 1967.

Israeli authorities, for their part, have demanded that Syria abandon its support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups before any agreement.

The last peace talks between the two countries broke down in 2000.

'Friendly parties'

In an interview with Al-Jazeera television, Ms Shaaban said the offer had come from the Israeli prime minister.

"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," she said. The Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, carried similar news on its website on Wednesday.

Detailed Golan map

Mr Erdogan is due to visit the Syrian capital, Damascus, this weekend to attend the opening of the first Syrian-Turkish economic forum.

Mr Olmert's office did not deny the Syrian reports, choosing only to state that they "refuse to comment on the matter".

In June 2007, Israel's deputy prime minister confirmed his government had sent secret messages to Syria about the possibility of resuming peace negotiations through third-parties, one of whom was widely believed to be Turkey.

The Syrian reports also came only days after the President Assad told the Central Committee of the Baath Party that "friendly parties were making efforts to organise contacts between Syria and Israel".

"Syria is in favour of a just and lasting peace. Syria rejects any secret negotiations or contacts with Israel. Any action taken by Syria in this area will be revealed to the public," he said on Sunday.

'Expectations'

On Thursday, Mr Olmert told Israel's Channel 10 television that he was interested in peace with Syria, and that both sides knew what the other wanted.

"Very clearly we want peace with the Syrians and we are taking all manner of actions to this end," he said. "President Bashar al-Assad knows precisely what our expectations are and we know his. I won't say more."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (archive)
Mr Erdogan is due to visit the Syrian capital, Damascus, this weekend

The former US President, Jimmy Carter, who held talks with the Syrian leader recently has said he believes "about 85%" of the differences between Israel and Syria have already been resolved, including borders, water rights, the establishment of a security zone and on the presence of international forces.

"[Mr Assad said] the only major difference in starting good-faith talks was that Israel insisted that there will be no public acknowledgment that the talks were going on when Syria insisted that the talks would not be a secret," Mr Carter said earlier this week.

Mr Carter said it was now "just a matter of reconvening the talks and concluding an agreement" between the neighbouring countries.

The Syrian reports on Wednesday have sparked outrage in the Israeli parliament, however, where several MPs said they would seek to accelerate the passage of a bill requiring any withdrawal from the Golan to be dependent on a referendum.

"Olmert's readiness to withdraw from the Golan represents an unprecedented political and national abandon," Yuval Steinitz of Likud told the Haaretz newspaper.

Correspondents say returning the Golan to Syria is not a popular concept in Israel, and the details of a possible Israeli withdrawal have bedevilled past negotiations between the two countries.


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