Earlier on Monday, Katsav invited al-Asad "to come to Jerusalem to seriously negotiate with Israeli leaders on the conditions of a peace accord".

But Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban told CNN that Israel must state its willingness to resume negotiations from where they broke off four years ago.

"This is not a serious response" to al-Asad's call last month for a revival of contacts with Israel, Shaaban said, accusing Katsav of seeking a "photo opportunity".

Katsav's office is largely ceremonial, but it was the strongest sign from Israel of an apparent willingness to talk since al-Asad said last month that he was keen to resume negotiations.

Additionally, Syria on Monday denied Israeli and US accusations that it supports "terrorism", stressing its commitment to a full and lasting peace with the neighbouring Jewish state. 

"Syria does not sponsor or back terrorism, but it does side with the Lebanese resistance seeking to liberate Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation," the official daily Tishrin quoted Information Minister Ahmad al-Hasan as saying.

Damascus backs Hizb Allah, the Lebanese Shia movement that booted Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon in May 2000 and is still fighting over a disputed border area. Washington considers it a "terrorist" organisation.

Strategic region

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said on Sunday he was ready to forge peace with the Palestinians and Syrians.

Israel plans nine new settlements
on occupied Golan Heights

But he said Syria had to show a willingness to bring an end to "terrorism" - referring to Damascus' backing for Palestinian resistance groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese Shia Hizb Allah movement.

The invitation to al-Asad followed recent criticism from Syria and from around the world of Israeli plans to build more illegal settlements on the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel seized after invading Syria in the 1967 war.

Previous US-sponsored peace talks between Israel and Syria collapsed over the issue of how much of the region would be returned.

Syria wants all of the heights back - a stance backed by international law. But Israel sees the territory as strategically important for controlling the Sea of Galilee, its biggest reservoir.

Secret contacts

An Israeli minister said on Sunday Israel had made secret contacts with Syria several months ago - well before recent Syrian overtures - but they broke down after word of the meetings leaked out.

Foreign minister Silvan Shalom said they were part of the effort to restart peace talks between Israel and Syria. Earlier talks broke down in 2000.

But in Damascus, an official with the information ministry denied there had been any secret contacts.