"President Asad had reiterated to me today that he has an outstretched hand to his Israeli counterpart, that he is willing to go to the table without conditions," Terje Roed-Larsen said after talks with the Syrian leader in Damascus on Wednesday.

  

"This is very encouraging because we in the UN do not believe that there will be a lasting peace unless there is a comprehensive peace. We have to address all the tracks in the Middle East peace process," he said.


Offer dismissed

  

But Israel rapidly dismissed the reported offer as a propaganda move designed to alleviate pressure from the United States.

  

"This seems to be a propaganda manoeuvre by the Syrian side," a senior foreign ministry official on Wednesday said on condition of anonymity.

 

Both the Palestinian and Syrian
tracks have shown little progress

"The Syrians are reacting because they have their backs to the wall after the (US) sanctions and the UN vote on Lebanon."

  

"Only if a proposition reaches us through the correct American channels then we will be ready for discussions," added the official, echoing equally cool responses to a number of similar overtures by Damascus in recent months.

  

Peace talks between Syria and Israel broke down in January 2000 over the fate of the strategic Golan Heights, which the Jewish state occupied in the 1967 war and later annexed.

  

Roed-Larsen met both Al-Asad and Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara in Damascus for talks on the status of the peace process in the Middle East.

 

Opportunities

 

"Only if a proposition reaches us through the correct American channels then we will be ready for discussions"

Israeli Foreign Ministry official

"We have been emphasising the necessity of having a comprehensive perspective on the peace process," Roed-Larsen said.

 

There were also "potential opportunities" on the Israeli-Palestinian track with a January election to find a successor for late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year, he said.

  

Israeli President Moshe Katsav had invited Al-Asad to visit Jerusalem for talks in January if Syria stopped backing Palestinian resistance groups and the Lebanese Hizb Allah movement. Syria said it could not take such an offer seriously.

  

On Thursday, Roed-Larsen is due in Lebanon which, like Syria, remains technically at war with Israel.