DAMASCUS – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has assured Syria that Israel is ready to return all of the Golan Heights, reports said on Wednesday amid renewed peace feelers between the bitter foes.
"Mr Erdogan telephoned President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday morning to tell him of the readiness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to withdraw completely from the occupied Syrian Golan in return for peace," reported the Al-Watan daily, which, like all the Syrian press, reflects the official line.
Damascus has consistently demanded as its price for peace the return of the whole of the strategic territory right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee — Israel’s main water source.
Israel baulked at the demand in the last peace talks which broke off in 2000 but Israeli media reported last year that the government was considering accepting it in return for Syrian agreement to end its longstanding alliance with Iran and its support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups.
Last June two Israeli ministers confirmed that peace feelers had been made to Syria through third party governments, one of which was widely identified as Turkey.
But the same month Syria’s ruling coalition, the National Progressive Front, rejected the reported Israeli proposals, dismissing them as an "effort to impose conditions which have nothing to do with the principles of peace."
In November Turkish President Abdullah Gul told the Israeli daily Maariv that there had been "many missed opportunities recently to begin peace negotiations" between Israel and Syria.
But this month both sides have again spoken of their desire for peace.
On Sunday, the Syrian president told his Baath party which leads the ruling coalition that "friendly parties were making efforts to organize contacts between Syria and Israel."
"Syria is in favor of a just and lasting peace. Syria rejects any secret negotiations or contacts with Israel. Any action taken by Syria in this area will be revealed to the public," official media quoted Assad as saying.
Last Thursday Olmert told Israel’s Channel 10 television: "Very clearly we want peace with the Syrians and we are taking all manner of actions to this end.
"President Bashar al-Assad knows precisely what our expectations are and we know his. I won’t say more."
Israeli government spokesman David Baker reiterated the point on Wednesday. "Israel wants peace with Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has reaffirmed that in numerous recent interviews and he hasn’t changed his opinion since," Baker told AFP in Jerusalem.
Despite a 1974 armistice, the two sides remain technically in a state of war. As recently as last October Israel launched an air strike against a site in northeastern Syria.
Damascus reacted furiously to the raid, roundly rejecting Israeli charges that the site was military.
Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.