Mofaz confirms contacts with Syria on Golan talks

Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed Saturday that the government has sent messages to Syria over the possibility of renewing peace talks, but did not reveal any details of the communications. Israel has contacted Syria through German and Turkish intermediaries, expressing a willingness to cede the Golan Heights in return for a comprehensive peace and for Damascus cutting its ties with terrorist groups and with Teheran, Yediot Aharonot reported on Friday. Mofaz told Israel Radio that in light of current tensions between Israel and Syria, and considering that Damascus had made overtures toward peace, he deemed it appropriate that there was a "secret channel" for talks. Therefore, Mofaz said, Israel had approached Syria. Officials at the Prime Minister's Office had no comment on Saturday night; they would neither confirm nor deny that messages had been relayed to Damascus. Since becoming prime minister, Ehud Olmert has been reluctant to renew talks with Syria. He recently rejected overtures from Damascus as an attempt by President Bashar Assad to deflect international, and particularly American, pressure on his regime over interference in Lebanon and Syrian policy on Iraq. Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) expressed support for a proposal whereby Israel would accept Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights if Damascus would agree to lease the strategic plateau to Israel for 25 years. During this period, Israel would determine whether Syria was serious about a genuine peace, and if so, Sheetrit argued, the importance of maintaining the Golan would be diminished. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) told Israel Radio that if Assad were serious about peace, he would come to Israel. Yishai said Shas supported returning land in order to prevent bloodshed, but he would not say if that included withdrawing from the Golan Heights. National Union-National Religious Party head Zevulun Orlev accused the prime minister of being willing to sell the Golan to stay in power. Orlev said Olmert was engaged in a desperate attempt to survive, and warned that the Golan would not be "erased" like Gush Katif, which was evacuated during Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. MK Effi Eitam (NU-NRP) said that the Olmert government, which "failed in Lebanon," was "behaving as failed regimes have acted throughout history, and in an attempt to conceal his responsibility... He is embarking on a dangerous political adventure." Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar called on Israel Beiteinu and Shas to leave the coalition. "The prime minister has no legitimacy to withdraw from the Golan," Sa'ar went on to say, adding that Olmert's leadership endangered Israel's security, Israel Radio reported.