Syria had no official reaction Sunday to Israel's announcement that it has sent secret peace feelers to the Arab country, but a state-run Syrian newspaper accused Israel of sending mixed messages. The state-run, English-language Syria Times daily said it believed the Israeli government had no intention of making peace with the Arabs, and accused Israel of sending contradictory signals. "Syria has every right to doubt the intentions of [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and his statements regarding his desire to talk peace, at a time when his war generals and senior aides are launching warlike threats," the newspaper said. "It's a blatant contradiction." Earlier Sunday, Olmert reportedly denied a weekend report that he had asked US President George W. Bush to allow Israel to begin talks with Syria. Sources close to NU-NRP MK Effi Eitam said that the prime minister had spoken with Eitam and assured him that Israel had no contact with Syria. Eitam had been vocal in his criticism of Olmert following a report Friday in Yediot Aharonot that Israel had been sending secret messages to Syria.
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Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Saturday that the government had sent messages to Syria over the possibility of renewing peace talks, but did not reveal any details of the communications.
On Friday, Yediot Aharonot reported that Israel had contacted Syria via German and Turkish intermediaries, expressing a willingness to cede the Golan Heights in return for comprehensive peace and Damascus cutting its ties with terrorist groups and with Teheran.
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.
Since becoming prime minister, 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.