Syria peace talks `close' to restarting

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ISRAEL AND Syria are close to ironing out their differences over the resumption of peace talks suspended three years ago, according to a senior Israeli official.

Syria had said that a precondition for resuming negotiations was Israel's acceptance that at the time they ended Israel had agreed to cede all of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. Israel denies making such a promise.

Danny Yatom, a senior aide to Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, said that "diplomacy can spawn more than one formula that will be acceptable to both sides".

He added that a way would be found of getting back to the negotiating table without preconditions.

Relations between Israel and Syria have thawed, with a speed that has surprised diplomats, since Mr Barak took office. Israeli officials say another sign of Syrian goodwill is a 50 per cent drop in the number of attacks by Hizbollah, the Islamic Lebanese guerrillas whom Syria supports, over the past month.

Mr Yatom said: "We recognise the Syrian demand to continue the process from the point where talks were halted in 1996."

However, it is not clear how Israel and Syria will bring together their differing interpretations of what was agreed at the time.

Syria wants an Israeli withdrawal to the frontier as it was immediately before the 1967 war, while Israel wants the border agreed in the 1920s, which is marginally less to Syria's advantage.

Mr Barak is to meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, tonight at the Erez crossing point into Gaza to describe the outcome of his talks with President Bill Clinton in Washington. The Israeli Prime Minister wants to modify the Wye accords signed by the previous Israeli government, while Mr Arafat is demanding that they be implemented as signed. Mr Barak has said that if Mr Arafat insists, he will implement Wye.

Delighted though Mr Arafat was to see the back of Benjamin Netanyahu, the previous Israeli prime minister, the warmth of Mr Barak's reception in Washington makes it harder for Palestinians to try to influence US policy. Mr Barak says he wants the US to play less of a mediating role on the ground, which the Palestinians see as against their interests.

Mr Barak will go on to Cairo to see President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt immediately after seeing Mr Arafat. Egypt is worried about Mr Barak's talk of delaying the implementation of Wye and his vagueness about the future of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It also does not want to see its influence marginalised by Israel giving priority to talks with Syria.

Israelis are still divided by the prospects for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria. A poll in the daily Yediot Aharanot shows 48 per cent would vote in favour of such an agreement in a referendum, while 46 per cent would vote against.

Two-thirds of Israelis think there can be no peace with Syria without giving up the Golan Heights.