DAMASCUS, Syria—The first and last thing that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem looks at each day at work is a large map of the Middle East with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights shaded in distinctive brown.
"This is my territory," Moallem said as he pointed to the land at the heart of chilly relations between Syria and Israel. "This is my life."
In the wake of this summer's war in Lebanon, the Golan Heights have re-emerged at the center of the latest land-for-peace proposal that some see as a chance to reshape regional dynamics. In an unexpected move, Syrian President Bashar Assad has offered to end his conflict with Israel if it gives back the disputed territory it's held for nearly 40 years.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and influential U.S. diplomats have rejected the proposal as a meaningless feint from a weak authoritarian ruler. But others, including a growing number of influential Israelis, see the offer as an opportunity to jump-start dormant negotiations at a time when the Middle East is drifting towards further instability.
Israel's defense minister, internal security minister and some of its veteran peace negotiators have urged Olmert to use the opening to lure Syria away from its alliance with hard-line groups that they think pose a greater threat to regional stability.
"I believe it is imperative for Israel to penetrate and shatter the vicious triangle comprised of Iran, Syria and Hamas by creating an impenetrable channel of communication," Uri Savir, Israel's chief negotiator of the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, wrote in The Jerusalem Post.
Assad surprised Israel with the offer. Only weeks earlier, as Israeli soldiers began withdrawing from Lebanon after a stalemated fight with the militant group Hezbollah, Assad delivered a derisive speech in which he hailed Hezbollah and said it had "shattered the myth of an invincible army."
Now the 40-year-old Syrian president is offering to sit down with Israel and talk.
In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Moallem said Syria was willing to normalize relations with Israel for the first time in history if Israel returned the Golan Heights, a vast swath of mountains that it captured during the 1967 Six Day War.
"Between Syria and Israel, the issue that stands between us is the Golan Heights," Moallem said. "After each war there is a narrow window of opportunity for peace, and it depends on what effort and message you do to enlarge it."
Moallem said the Syrian offer was likely to stand for only a few months, and Assad has warned that he may consider attacking Israel if his entreaties are rebuffed.
"My hope for peace could change one day," Assad told the German magazine Der Spiegel late last month. "And when hope disappears, then maybe war really is the only answer."
That threat has kept Israel's military on alert along the Syrian border, although few expect Syria to attack anytime soon, if at all.
Assad's offer has been rejected by Olmert, who wants to see Syria sever its links to Hezbollah and the militant group Hamas before they agree to peace talks.
On Monday, Olmert repeated his rejection in a speech before the Israeli parliament.
U.S. officials also have rejected Assad's gesture.
"We ask him to step outside his office and do something about the situation in his capital city, where there are enemies of peace who operate freely from Damascus and conduct terror activities in the Palestinian territories and in Israel," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David C. Welch told the U.S.-backed Alhurra Television network last week. "If his desire and vision for peace are accurate and real, he would do something about those things."
Moallem dismissed such demands as the unrealistic rhetoric of an American administration that's done nothing but destabilize the Middle East with its uncompromising policies.
"When the Americans are moderate, Syria will be moderate," he said.
Even if Israel were to launch talks with Syria, the initiative could be derailed quickly by the probe into last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A preliminary investigation suggested that high-level Syrian officials were behind the attack, which forced Assad to pull his troops out of Lebanon.
Still, coming at a time when there are few peaceful options in the simmering Middle East, a growing number of Israeli officials, Western diplomats in the region and intellectuals see a chance to isolate Iran further and undermine militant groups.
"A peace accord with Syria would deal a mortal blow to the current regime in Tehran and would bring its end closer," Israeli commentator Sever Plocker wrote. "A Syrian-Israeli peace will pull the rug out from beneath the feet of the terrorist organizations that are based in Damascus, will help the Palestinians regain their sanity and will serve as leverage for a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace."
Assad's offer is Syria's latest attempt to settle the long-standing dispute over the Golan Heights. The president made a similar offer three years ago, which was greeted with the same skepticism. Perhaps the best chance to settle the issue came in 2000, when U.S.-brokered negotiations broke down over whether Israel would give Syria access to the Sea of Galilee.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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