A high-ranking official in the previous government said Sunday that Israel and Syria were close to resuming direct peace talks in late 2008, and that the Syrians signaled readiness to ease past demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from captured lands.
Turkish-mediated talks between the two sides were to have progressed to direct talks in December 2008. But Israel launched a war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip that month, and the talks were derailed, said the former official in the government of Ehud Olmert.
"Had we started direct negotiations, I believe that we would have concluded them within a month or two," he said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political and diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the talks.
Ankara mediated several rounds of indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel in 2008. Neither side provided any sign of significant headway until Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated in an interview to the Wall Street Journal last week that significant progress had been made toward setting an agenda for direct talks.
The Israeli official confirmed Assad's assessment.
"The fact that a meeting was to be scheduled for direct talks I think proves that it (the negotiating agenda) was accepted by them and by us," he said.
'Israel wanted full peace'
The border the Syrians proposed in the Ankara-mediated talks offered Israel more land between the water and the frontier, the Olmert government official said, while refusing to give details.
"There was more space, enough to have an Israeli road between the water and the border line," he said. He said Israel would have accepted this border.
In return for the pullout, the former official said, Israel wanted full peace, open borders, diplomatic and commercial relations with Syria. It also wanted Syria to halt military ties with Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel did not, however, insist that Syria sever its ties with Iran, he said.
These and other points were accepted by both sides as subjects for negotiation, the official said.
In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Assad said the two sides "were very close to defining the reference that would be given to the US and tell them 'this is your means to manage the next negotiation,' the direct negotiations I mean. But it all went in a different way."