Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Israel call for Syria peace talks

Israeli tank in Golan
Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to restart peace negotiations with Syria, as long as they are held "without preconditions", officials say.

He made the offer during talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and after Syria's president had earlier also expressed interest in fresh talks.

Bashar al-Assad, who is due in Paris on Friday, said Damascus was not setting conditions on making peace with Israel.

Syria has remained in a state of war with Israel since its 1948 foundation.

The Syrian government has in the past insisted the return of the Golan Heights, a rocky plateau which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and unilaterally annexed in 1981, is a non-negotiable condition of any peace agreement.

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

The last direct peace talks between the states broke down in 2000.

'Core policy'

Israeli officials said Mr Netanyahu had discussed the Middle East peace process with President Sarkozy during their talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Wednesday afternoon.

"The prime minister said that he would be willing to immediately open negotiations anywhere, anytime, as long as the talks are held without preconditions, either from Israel or from Syria," cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio.

Golan Heights map

"The prime minister has held a consistent line in the past few months since taking office in favour of opening talks. Israel does not place preconditions. Israel offers the hand of peace."

However, Israeli officials denied reports by the Arabic news channel, al-Arabiya, that Mr Netanyahu had given Mr Sarkozy a message for the Syrians that he was willing to discuss a withdrawal from the Golan.

The call for fresh peace talks echoes a statement by President Assad on Wednesday that Syria was not setting conditions on making peace with Israel.

However, he at the same time asserted that Syria had rights that had to be restored and that dialogue was one path to achieving it.

"Resistance forms the core of our policy, both in the past and in the future. We do not put forward conditions on making peace, but we do have rights that we will not renounce," he told a meeting of Arab political parties.

"If we are strong we will achieve the peace we seek. Resistance is at the heart of the new Middle East we have begun to build."

Turkey brokered four rounds of indirect talks last year, but they were suspended when Israel launched a major offensive on the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Strategic territory

But in October, Mr Assad called on European nations to help bridge the divide between Israel and Syria. Mr Sarkozy is believed to have a good relationship with both leaders.

The BBC's Tim Franks in Jerusalem says Israel is keen to see Syria end its support for the Islamist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, and to prise Syria away from Iran.

Farmer in Golan
Syria says it wants the entire Golan Heights region back

But our correspondent cautions that declaring interest in talks is not the same as a diplomatic breakthrough, and that there could be some way yet for anything concrete to materialise.

The key sticking point has been Israel's continued occupation of the strategic Golan Heights region, our correspondent says, which is currently home to about 18,000 Israeli settlers and another 17,000 Syrian Druze.

Similar to those on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, all Israeli settlements on the occupied territory are illegal under international law.

Critics say that talk of changing the dynamics between France and Israel on Syria has taken the focus off the lack of progress made on the Israel-Palestinian issue, in which there are starker differences between their positions.

On the eve of Mr Netanyahu's visit, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said there was "real political difference" separating the parties on the issue of Israel's continued settlement-building on occupied Palestinian land.

"A freeze on settlements, that's to say no more colonisation while talks are ongoing, would be absolutely indispensable," he told France Inter radio.

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