By Aluf Benn and Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondents, Haaretz Service and Agencies
"In light of the tensions in the current period, and considering the fact that in the past ... the Syrians sent messages that they want peace, I thought and I still think today that a secret channel is one of the channels for checking intentions and expectations," Mofaz told Israel Radio.
"And such an approach, in a secret channel, was done," Mofaz said. "And this was said clearly by the Prime Minister's Office. At this stage, there is no Syrian response, or any comment on this issue."
"And such an approach, in a secret channel was made," Mofaz said. "This was said clearly by the Prime Minister's Office. At this stage, there is no response or comment on this issue."
Mofaz said he considered a back channel to be important, noting that peace agreements with other Arab countries started in such a way.
He said Syria seemed to be ambivalent about peace talks with Israel. "At the beginning, [the Syrians] spoke about their desire to renew talks and the process, and after messages were sent, there is no answer," he said. "At this stage Israel is not sure what Syria's intentions are."
The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth on Friday, whereby Israel has recently sent secret messages to Syria, signaling its willingness to give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal that would require Damascus to distance itself from Iran.
National Religious Party Chairman MK Zevulun Orlev said Friday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is prepared to sell the Golan Heights to keep his job.
"Olmert's willingness to cede the Golan is a desparate survival bid," Orlev told Israel Radio.
Orlev concluded by saying: "The Golan will not be sold like Gush Katif," referring to the settlement bloc evacuated in Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Meanwhile, Minister of Housing and Construction Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) said Friday a dynamic of dialogue has been created between Israel and Syria, and he hopes this will calm tensions in the North, and will constitute the beginning of a peace process.
Sheetrit told Israel Radio that he is prepared for Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights, but only in an arrangement whereby Syria leases the Golan to Israel for a period of 25 years. After this time if there is a real peace with Syria, he said, the Golan is less important to Israel - implying that the territory could then be fully transferred to the Syrians. If, however, it appears that there is no peace then the Golan is "very important," inferring it should not be handed over.
Quoting officials close to Olmert, Yedioth Aharonoth said that the prime minister had German and Turkish diplomats relay to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel is willing to hold direct peace negotiations and give up the strategic plateau, captured in the 1967 Six-day War.
Syria did not respond to Olmert's messages, the report said.
Israel officials confirm offer to engage in land-for-peace talks
Israeli officials confirmed Friday that Israel had sent messages to Syria signaling its willingness to engage in talks based on the principle of land for peace, but declined to comment on what if any territorial concessions were offered.
A senior Israeli official told Reuters that Syrian officials appeared open to discreet dialogue and Israel was now trying to determine what concessions Damascus might be willing to make, notably in severing alliances with Israel's enemies in Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant movements like Hamas.
"Nobody knows the answer," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and has been involved in the discussions.
"We don't know what is the Syrian definition of peace - if Syria will really position itself with the U.S. and its Western allies or stay with Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas?" he said.
"There are no preconditions for the beginning of the negotiations. But [Assad] will have to send an indication."
He and a second Israeli official confirmed that Turkey, which maintains good relations with both Syria and Israel, had helped promote dialogue, resuming a role that diplomatic sources have said it played in behind-the-scenes discussions in 2004.
Syria denies it received invitation to start talks with Israel
A senior diplomat in Syria's London Embassy said Damascus had not received any invitation to start negotiations for peace with Israel, either from the United States or from any other party, Israel Radio on Friday quoted the Qatari newspaper Al Sharq as saying.
The report comes a day after another Syrian official said Damascus is interested in renewing the peace process with Israel, following similar remarks by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday.
According to the reports, the Syrian diplomat said Friday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government had suffered a route during the Second Lebanon War, and is thus incapable of serving as a real partner for peace with Syria.
Nevertheless, he stated that Damascus is always willing to renew the peace process.
A Syrian official said earlier Thursday that Damascus is interested in renewing the peace process with Israel.
"Our stance remains as it was. We are ready to renew negotiations for peace, and interested in working for peace," the Syrian official told the French news agency, Agence France-Presse.
With reference to Olmert's call Wednesday for a renewal of direct negotiations with Syria, the Syrian official said: "Syria is following the Israeli announcements very closely."
Nevertheless, he emphasized: "We don't have any high hopes that things will change."
Army Radio on Thursday evening quoted former foreign minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud as saying that Israel must be attentive to signals of peace coming from Syria, but simultaneously, be ready for any scenario.
"We must aspire to achieve peace, but at the same time not close our eyes," he said.
Shalom emphasized that any move involving Damascus must be coordinated with the United States and the moderate Arab states, the radio said.
Meanwhile, Israel Radio quoted Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog (Labor) as saying Thursday that, "Israel is ready for a diplomatic process with Syria and a real, honest dialogue."
Herzog, who is currently attending a conference on anti-Semitism in Romania, added "the problem with Syria is its proximity to and cooperation with Iran, and Syria's continuing aid to Hezbollah and Hamas."