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Syria offered land for peace

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JERUSALEM — Israel has told Syria it is willing to trade land for peace and is waiting to hear whether President Bashar Assad would cut ties with Iran and hostile guerrilla groups in return, Israeli officials said yesterday.

One said Syrian officials had thus far indicated a willingness to conduct discreet contacts that might lead to a resumption of formal peace talks after a seven-year hiatus. In two weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to meet President Bush, who would play a crucial role in any such process.

Two days after Mr. Olmert confirmed Israel sent conciliatory messages to Damascus, Israeli press widely reported a leak that quoted a senior diplomat saying Syria was reminded that Israel was ready to discuss returning the Golan Heights, captured 40 years ago this week, if peace talks resume.

A senior Israeli official said Syrian officials appeared open to discreet dialogue and Israel was trying to determine what concessions Damascus might be willing to make, notably in severing alliances with Israel's enemies in Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant movements like Hamas.

"Nobody knows the answer," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and has been involved in the discussions.

He and a second Israeli official confirmed that Turkey, which maintains good relations with both Syria and Israel, helped promote dialogue, resuming a role that diplomatic sources said it played in behind-the-scenes discussions in 2004.

A senior aide to Mr. Olmert was in Turkey recently, the two officials said. A spokesman for Mr. Olmert declined comment.

Israeli spokesmen also declined to comment on yesterday's report in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that Mr. Olmert communicated to Mr. Assad through Turkish and German channels that Israel was ready to give up the Golan Heights.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev noted, however, that Israel has long been willing to negotiate on the future of the strategic territory, captured in the Six Day War of June 1967.

There was no immediate comment from Damascus.

Polls show about half of Israeli voters would be ready to give back some of the Golan but few would give up all of the land. That poses a challenge to a leader as unpopular as Mr. Olmert.

Alon Liel, a former top Israeli diplomat who has taken part in discreet contacts with Syrians for some years, said he thought the basis of a deal between Israel and Syria was taking shape but that the key to any accord lay in Washington.

"I think the deal is pretty much closed. But you can't move forward on the 'small' deal with Israel without the 'big' deal with the U.S.," said Mr. Liel, who now heads the Israel-Syria Peace Society, dedicated to promoting a settlement.

Mr. Liel said Mr. Assad would not give up his alliance with Iran without an assurance of aid and other benefits from the United States and other Western powers — similar to those that Egypt secured by making peace with Israel in 1979.

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