There has been no public response from Damascus to the news of the Israeli approaches.

 

Guarantees sought

 

Israel's deputy prime minister on Sunday played down prospects for relaunching direct bilateral talks.

 

"The problem is the Syrians are not ready and are unwilling to negotiate directly with Israel"

Shimon Peres, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister

Shimon Peres said that Syria ought to negotiate with Israel exclusively rather than through an intermediary.

 

"The problem is the Syrians are not ready and are unwilling to negotiate directly with Israel. They want to do it through the United States," he said.

 

Israeli officials say the country is ready to talk with Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, but is seeking advance guarantees that Damascus would distance itself from its ally Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Palestinian fighters.

 

Peres referred to the US position on Syria to signal the moves sought from Damascus as a prelude to any talks.

 

He said: "The United States said: 'Gentlemen, if you want to negotiate, you have to stop being a supporter of terror and you have to stop supporting ... the toppling down of the prime minister of Lebanon'."

 

Olmert approach

 

Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported on Friday that Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, had secretly sent messages to al-Assad via Germany and Turkey.

 

Olmert indicated that Israel was willing to return the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for an end to Syria's alliance with Iran and its ties to "terror organisations".

 

US-brokered talks failed in 2000 over disagreements on the Golan, a strategic plateau that Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

 

About 15,000 Israeli settlers live in the Golan Heights alongside more than 18,000 Arabs, the vast majority of whom refuse to take Israeli nationality.