Israel has put out secret feelers to Syria, but has not received a response, Israel’s deputy prime minister confirmed Saturday.
The comments came a day after an Israeli newspaper reported that Israel has told Syrian leaders it is willing to give up the captured Golan Heights as part of a peace deal that would require Syria to distance itself from Iran’s virulently anti-Israel regime.
Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking Saturday to Israel Radio, confirmed that a message was sent to Syria, but would not describe the content in detail.
“In light of the tensions in the current period, and considering the fact that in the past ... the Syrians sent messages that they want peace, I thought and I still think today that a secret channel is one of the channels for checking intentions and expectations,” Mofaz said.
“And such an approach, in a secret channel, was done. And this was said clearly by the prime minister’s office. At this stage, there is no Syrian response, or any comment on this issue.”
Mofaz said he considered a back channel to be important, noting that Israeli peace agreements with other Arab countries started in such a way.
He said Syria seemed to be ambivalent about peace talks with Israel. “At the beginning, they (the Syrians) speak about their desire to renew talks and the process, and after messages are sent, there is no answer,” he said. At this stage, he said, Israel is not sure what Syria’s intentions are.
Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment.
On Friday, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently sent messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad through German and Turkish diplomats saying Israel was open to direct peace negotiations and to give up the strategic plateau it seized in the 1967 Mideast war.
Olmert’s office has not commented on the report. But an Israeli official said earlier in the week that Israel had been taking soundings on Syria’s intentions through an undisclosed third party. That official agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name.
Israel and Syria have held several rounds of peace talks in the past. The last attempt broke down in 2000 over the scope of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, which Syrian artillery shelled Israelis before the 1967 war.
Assad has recently urged Israel to return to the negotiating table, but has not publicly addressed Israel’s demand that Damascus scale back its ties with Iran, its main ally in the region, and stop backing Lebanese and Palestinian groups committed to Israel’s destruction.
Green light for negotiations
Yediot said President Bush gave Olmert the green light for negotiations with Syria in an hourlong phone conversation last month.
Mofaz said the two leaders plan further discussions during their scheduled meeting at the White House on June 19.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv could not be reached Friday for comment on the newspaper report.
In the past, Israeli and U.S. officials have said privately that Washington didn’t want Israel to talk with Syria, because of its ties to militants in Iraq and its meddling in Lebanon. But Bush is under pressure from allies, lawmakers and advisers who think Washington should improve relations with Syria in an effort to isolate Iran.
Syria backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon during their war with Israel last summer, while the political leadership of the Palestinian militant group Hamas is headquartered in Damascus.
After the Lebanon war, Assad offered to open negotiations with Olmert, but Israel dismissed his overture as a tactic to ease his regime’s isolation in the West. Last week, however, a senior Israeli official said Olmert was assessing prospects for new talks.
It is not clear what drove the turnaround.
The inconclusive Lebanon war made Olmert too politically weak at home to make headway with his proposed withdrawal from large swaths of the West Bank, and negotiations with Syria could help to dispel the widespread image in Israel that he has no political agenda.
Alternatively, Olmert might have reached the conclusion that Syria is serious about making peace or that Israel should not rebuff peace overtures.
Palestinian analysts have speculated Israeli is trying to undermine Syria’s support for Palestinian militants and to divert attention from stagnated Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Returning Golan, which Israel annexed in 1981, is not a popular idea in Israel. The heights dominate much of northern Israel, overlooking the country’s largest source of drinking water, and are home to wineries and popular tourism sites.
A poll by the Teleseker company published in the Maariv newspaper Friday said 84 percent of 500 Israelis surveyed oppose a full withdrawal from Golan and 44 percent opposed any pullback. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.