JERUSALEM -- Two senior Israeli Cabinet ministers said yesterday that Israel had a unique opportunity to restart peace efforts with Syria and should not ignore a recent overture from Syria's president, Bashar Assad.
The call by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was issued amid media reports that senior military officials were pressuring the government to respond positively to Assad.
Last month Assad told The New York Times he was ready to resume peace talks where they left off in 2000 -- with Israel offering to return nearly all the Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
In response to Assad's comments, Sharon said Syria must crack down on terror groups operating from its territory, and Shalom and Netanyahu said yesterday they saw no need for Israel to withdraw from the strategic plateau.
Last week, an Israeli ministerial committee approved a plan to encourage settlement of the Golan. Government officials said the project had been long planned and was unconnected to Assad's offer.
However, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker from Sharon's Likud party was reportedly traveling to Damascus at Assad's invitation to discuss the possibility of new talks, and media reports said an Israeli official met a Syrian counterpart in Europe to discuss the issue.
Still technically at war with Israel, Syria demands the return of all the Golan as part of any potential deal.
"There is a need to examine seriously Syria's intentions," Shalom told Army Radio yesterday.
Netanyahu, who oversaw peace talks with Syria as prime minister in 1998, told Israel Radio the US victory in Iraq had given Israel a great strategic advantage over a weakened Syrian government, opening up the opportunity for Israel to negotiate from a position of strength.
"Syria is in a very troubled situation, with a dictatorial government that is struggling to survive, confronted by a great historical change" in Iraq, he said. "They need a peace agreement with us like the air that they breathe."
He said Syria needs peace "a lot more than we do."
Neither Netanyahu nor Shalom said they were willing to withdraw from all the Golan.
"It is a long way from calling for peace talks to agreeing to leave the Golan Heights," Shalom said.
Reflecting a split in government thinking, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz discounted Assad's offer, saying he was simply acting in response to renewed pressures from the United States, which has threatened sanctions if Syria does not crack down on militant groups operating from its territory and from Lebanon, including Hezbollah.
"Syria's declarations about a desire for peace negotiations are not serious," Mofaz said. "If Syria's intentions are serious, they should dismantle Hezbollah and stop their support for Palestinian terror and disband the commands in Damascus. Only then will it be possible to think about negotiations."
Support for Mofaz's position came from an unlikely source -- Shimon Peres, leader of the dovish opposition Labor party, which advocates far-reaching concessions for peace.
In a statement, Peres said Syria must "cut itself off from terrorist groups." Also, Peres said, Assad must agree to meet Sharon and to renew negotiations with no preconditions.
The Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday that the military's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, and three of his senior deputies believe Israel should respond positively to Assad's gesture, even if it believes the Syrian leader is interested mainly in mitigating US pressure.
"Even if it is a tactical move by the Syrian president, Israel must corner him with positive signals," the newspaper quoted an unidentified senior officer as saying.