While there are still many difficulties to overcome in Israel's efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, there is good reason for hope, President Shimon Peres told German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday. Steinmeier, the Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor, is on a brief tour of the region to promote peace. When asked if he had a message for Steinmeier to relay to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Peres made it clear that Assad must understand he could not expect to receive the Golan Heights on a silver platter while he continued to strengthen Hizbullah and maintain contact with Iran. "Israel is ready to return to the negotiating table immediately, but without any preconditions," he said. Peres outlined some of the recent, significant changes in the West Bank, which he described as an important breakthrough on which Israel and the Palestinians saw eye-to-eye. The most important change, he said, was that 25 out of 41 checkpoints had been dismantled, allowing for greater freedom of movement and enabling more progress to be made with the economic projects of Japan in Jericho, France in Bethlehem and Germany in Jenin. In addition, he pointed out that for the first time, cities were being handed over to the Palestinians to make their own security arrangements. The police force in Jericho was being trained by the Europeans, and US General Keith Dayton, with the support of the Quartet, was training security forces that he refers to as his "gendarmerie," said Peres. Recalling conversations held with Peres earlier in the year during and after Operation Cast Lead, Steinmeier said: "The war is over, but we have not gained peace. You know better than anyone else that the way to stability can be gained by talking to the Palestinians with the focus on a two-state solution. The precondition has to be security for Israel and its citizens, and we have to try to gain the support of the moderate Arab States." Steinmeier added that in his view, this had been the motive for US President Barack Obama's recent visit to Cairo. Europe and Germany would support this initiative as much as possible, he said.