JERUSALEM — Despite months of tension, Israel and Syria appeared Thursday to be engaged in indirect talks on the outlines of a peace accord that would include an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights.
Direct, U.S.-brokered talks over the territory, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, collapsed in 2000. There have been periodic peace overtures since, but the current effort is viewed as more serious because it is being mediated by Turkey, which has close relations with both countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described his hope for a deal in an interview last week before Passover, telling the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, "I am acting on this issue, and I hope that my efforts mature into something meaningful."
Syrian officials announced this week that Olmert had informed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Israel's willingness to "withdraw completely" from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty. Erdogan relayed the offer by telephone last week to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the officials said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Golan Heights: An article in Friday's Section A on Turkish mediation efforts said Israel's border with Syria had been quiet since the 1967 Middle East War. Israeli and Syrian troops battled in the Golan Heights during the 1973 war between Israel and its neighbors.
"What we need now is to find common ground through the Turkish mediator," Assad said in remarks published Thursday. He said he would discuss Israel's proposal with Erdogan when he visits Damascus this weekend for a Turkish-Syrian economic forum.
Israeli officials would neither confirm nor deny the statements from Syria. But Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the two countries' leaders had been exchanging messages.
"The Syrians know what Israel is expecting from negotiations, and we know what the Syrians are expecting from negotiations," Regev said.
Olmert, who spent part of the week vacationing in a cabin in the Golan Heights, has never committed himself publicly on returning the territory. He has said only that he is willing to resume direct talks if Syria ends its support for Islamic militant groups hostile to Israel, such as the Palestinian movement Hamas and the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Israeli advocates of a peace treaty argue that it would break the alliance between Syria and Israel's most feared enemy, Iran.
But many Israelis are wary of giving up the Golan, a strategic plateau that overlooks much of northern Israel and gives the country access to water in the arid region, as well as land for vineyards, orchards and cattle grazing.
In a sign that Iran is taking the peace overtures seriously, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Syria on Thursday against drawing closer to Israel and the United States and urged Muslim nations to stand up to Western "conspiracies."
Israel's border with Syria has been quiet since the 1967 war, even after the Jewish state extended Israeli law and administration to the Golan in 1981. But tension has been high since last summer, fueled by two events: In September, an Israeli airstrike destroyed what Western analysts said was a partly constructed nuclear facility in Syria. And Imad Mughniyah, a top Hezbollah commander, was assassinated in February in Damascus, for which Syria held Israel responsible.
In the interview with Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper, Assad said Turkey had been mediating between him and Olmert since last April.
After visiting Damascus this week, former President Carter said Israel and Syria were only a few details away from a peace accord. But he said the Bush administration, intent on isolating Syria, was discouraging Israel from proceeding.
The Associated Press said Syrian officials had confirmed that Assad gave the interview to Al-Watan, and they did not dispute its published contents.
Assad said in the interview that he expected the mediation to evolve into direct talks, but only when the United States is willing to sponsor them. He said that would be impossible until a new U.S. administration takes office.
No details of the reported Israeli offer were disclosed.
Olmert's critics reacted with alarm to the reported talks. David Tal, a member of parliament from Olmert's centrist Kadima Party, said he would push for passage of a bill requiring that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan be put to a national referendum.