Image: Golan Heights
Louai Beshara  /  AFP-Getty Images
This tower is among the signs of Israel's military presence atop the Golan Heights.
updated 4/24/2008 1:12:12 PM ET 2008-04-24T17:12:12

Syrian President Bashar Assad said Thursday that Israel has expressed willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, but direct talks would not begin before a new U.S. administration takes office.

Israel declined to comment on the reported message, which Syria says was passed through Turkish mediators, but a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the country is "interested in peace with Syria."

In an interview with Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper, Assad said the United States was the only party qualified to sponsor direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

But he said those talks would not be possible right now because the Bush administration, "does not have the vision or will for the peace process. It does not have anything."

"Maybe with the coming administration in the United States we can talk about direct negotiations," he told Al-Watan. Syrian officials confirmed that Assad gave the interview and did not dispute its contents.

Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said Israel is also interested in restarting talks.

"We know what the Syrians expect from negotiations and the Syrians knows what Israel wants from the negotiations," Regev said.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. The two countries last held peace negotiations in 2000, but talks collapsed over the extent of Israel's proposed withdrawal.

Olmert reportedly made first move
Assad said Syria received news a week ago that Olmert had "assured the Turkish prime minister of his readiness to return the Golan." He said he would discuss mediation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visits Damascus on Saturday.

It was not clear how much of the strategic plateau Olmert said he was willing to return, and Assad did not say what conditions Olmert had put on a withdrawal.

Turkey has close relations with both Israel and Syria as well as with the United States.

In recent days, both Assad and Olmert said their countries had exchanged messages. Olmert told Israeli newspapers the messages clarified what each would expect from a future peace deal.

Details of the reported offer were not clear. Israel has demanded Syria agree to a full peace deal and halt support for militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Olmert has never committed himself publicly on a return of the Golan, saying only he is willing to resume peace talks with Syria if it drops its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Syria-Israel contacts are taking place despite tension between the two neighbors over an Israeli air raid on a Syrian military facility in September. Some foreign reports say the target was a nuclear installation being built with North Korean assistance.

Damascus says the facility was military, but not a nuclear one.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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