"We have proposed a resumption of negotiations without conditions," Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara said on Thursday. "I now notice the Israeli prime minister is setting conditions on Syria, and that is unacceptable."

His comments came shortly after Israeli premier Ariel Sharon expressed willingness to talk to the Syrians under "certain conditions".

These included demands that Syria stop supporting what Israel calls terrorist organisations.

But Syrian state radio accused Israel of deliberately trying to sabotage peace efforts.

"Israel is allowing opportunities for peace to slip by and blocking international efforts by setting defective conditions which sabotage the peace process and raise tension in the region," Damascus Radio said.

Golan dispute

Bilateral peace talks collapsed nearly five years ago over the fate of the strategic Golan Heights plateau, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War and later illegally annexed.

Sharon's comments earlier in the day were a response to a statement by the Syrian president the previous day which made it clear he is willing to reopen stalled peace negotiations.

The Golan Heights were illegally
annexed by Israel in 1981

However, Sharon told a news conference in Tel Aviv that he did not see any real sign that Syria wanted peace.

Maier Cohen, an Israeli political analyst, told Aljazeera that Sharon's readiness to meet Bashar al-Asad is a "great turning point".

 

"Silvan Shalom, Israel's foreign minister, said Syrian calls could not be ignored and there has been pressure from the military to study Syria's serious intentions for peace," he said.

 

"Therefore, there have been internal and not external pressures on Sharon to resume negotiations."


Israel accusations

 

Cohen continued: "Sharon said Damascus poses a threat because it backs terrorist organisations like Hizb Allah which threatens Israel, in addition to Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

 

"These are not too difficult conditions if Syria actually seeks to achieve peace, but the problem is that Sharon is not ready to offer concessions on the Syrian and the Palestinian fronts.

 

"If Syria is serious, it would have to take positive steps to convince Israel and encourage it to offer concessions with regard to the Golan Heights, such as not exporting terrorism to Iraq which is targeting US soldiers and Iraqis."

 

Sharon is willing to talk to Syria
but only under certain conditions

Previously, Damascus has poured cold water on Israeli
claims that Palestinian factions in Syria direct operations inside the Palestinian territories, saying that the Palestinian resistance is home-grown.

It has also defended Hizb Allah as a legitimate counterbalance to what it calls Israel's hegemonic ambitions, and has denied encouraging "terrorism" in Iraq.

Syria's apparent readiness to resume peace talks comes as Israel is gearing up for a full evacuation of the Gaza Strip next year.

Observers doubt if Sharon will ever let Israel get bogged down in peace talks with Syria or contemplate any withdrawal from the Golan while preoccupied with the Gaza pullout.