(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is exploring the possibility of renewing peace talks with Syria, a senior Israeli official said Thursday.
Olmert has recently begun checking through a third party what Syria would offer in such negotiations, the official said. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media, spoke on condition of anonymity. There were no details on the identity of the third party.
Israel wants to be assured before starting such talks that Syria would cut ties with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, the official said.
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Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin declined comment on any possible approaches to Syria. But she said Olmert has repeatedly stated that 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 has said recently that he is willing to renew talks with Israel, but Olmert has said he doesn't believe Assad is serious. Israeli officials have said that Assad's overtures are just a tactic to ease his regime's international isolation.
Olmert has indicated in closed meetings recently that Israel would be willing to give up the Golan Heights in talks with Syria, the official said Thursday. "Olmert has said that the price for negotiations with Syria are known and there can be no dispute about the conditions," 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, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and for Syria to end its backing of armed extremists, like Hizbullah 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 strategic plateau. The area has remained quiet since the 1973 Yom Kippur 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 send messages to assure Damascus that Israel is not interested in a military conflict.
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