NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, April 24th 2008
BY MATTHEW KALMAN
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
JERUSALEM - Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told Syria he is willing to return the Golan Heights to the terror-tied state in exchange for peace, Syrian and Turkish officials said Wednesday.
Olmert's office did not deny the report - infuriating Israeli hard-liners and members of his own centrist Kadima Party.
Israel first occupied the strategic plateau, towering above the Sea of Galilee, in 1967 and annexed it in 1981, settling some 5,000 Israelis there. Syria has always demanded its complete return.
The reports may have some truth: On Monday, former President Jimmy Carter said Syria and Israel had resolved "85%" of their differences over the disputed border and described Syrian President Bashar Assad's "eagerness" for peace.
The Syrian daily newspaper Al-Watan reported that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Assad to tell him of Olmert's readiness to "to withdraw completely from the occupied Syrian Golan in return for peace."
Assad told a meeting of his ruling Baath Party that "friendly parties were making efforts to organize contacts between Syria and Israel."
Olmert's spokesmen refused to comment on the Al-Watan report, saying only that "Assad is familiar with Israel's position regarding peace talks and vice versa."
Angry members of Olmert's Kadima Party vowed to force any decision on withdrawal to a national referendum.
"Evacuating the Golan Heights will pump Hezbollah forces into the region, who will make the lives of the residents of the north miserable," said David Tal, chairman of the Knesset House Committee.
Yuval Steinitz, a foreign affairs expert in the opposition Likud Party, said: "Without the Golan, Israel will be faced with great difficulties in defending itself and keeping the Sea of Galilee and water resources. I haven't the slightest doubt that the people of Israel adhere to the Golan much more than they do to Olmert."
Polls show Olmert trailing badly to Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yossi Beilin, a leading left-wing legislator, encouraged Olmert to talk to Syria.
"Peace with Syria is a key part of regional peace and will lead to the implementation of the Arab peace initiative and to a dramatic change in Syria's relationship with the extreme elements in the region," Beilin said.