Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has renewed his secret peace overtures to Syrian President Bashar Assad, telling him Israel is willing to return the Golan Heights if Damascus severs its ties with Iran and militant groups, the Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported yesterday.
Yediot also said that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has asked reserves Major General Uri Saguy, a former chief of military intelligence, to review Israel's most sensitive intelligence reports and formulate recommendations for Barak about the prospect of renewing peace talks with Syria.
However, Saguy denied he had been handed that assignment in an Israel Radio interview.
As prime minister in 2000, Barak led failed peace talks with Syria and Saguy headed Israel's negotiating team at the time.
Olmert's office would not comment on the reports.
The reports did not say who served as the intermediary between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic ties. The reported contacts take place just two months after Israel launched an airstrike against a facility in northern Syria.
Commercial satellite images have indicated a site for a future nuclear reactor might have been destroyed, but Syria has denied developing such a reactor.
Israeli media reported about half a year ago that Olmert had relayed messages to Assad through Turkey. But the talks did not lead to a breakthrough, and over the summer, war talk heated up.
On Sunday, Olmert told members of parliament's influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he was "ready for peace with Syria and prepared to conduct negotiations with no preconditions -- on condition they abandon the `axis of evil' and don't support terror," Yediot said.
Asked by a panel member if contacts with Assad had been renewed, Olmert dodged the question, the newspaper said.
"I don't have to report on everything I do," Yediot quoted him as saying.
However, Olmert expressed hope that Syria would take part in a US-sponsored peace conference scheduled at the end of this month -- even though he has said publicly that he is not willing to discuss the Golan Heights at the conference, which is to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Syria has said it wouldn't attend the gathering in Annapolis, Maryland, unless the Golan -- a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war -- is on the table.
Yediot, citing unidentified political sources, said Olmert was interested in negotiating with the Syrians and the Palestinians at the same time.
Barak earlier this month urged Syria to attend a US-sponsored conference on the Middle East, saying the meeting could be a launching pad for new talks between the two foes.