Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek said Syria is very interested in negotiating peace with Israel. Vollebaek, returning from a shuttle diplomacy mission to Syria, spoke to reporters in Gaza Wednesday after a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and encouraged Israel to take advantage of Syria's current openness.
Israeli leaders had also relayed a message to Syrian President Hafez Assad through Vollebaek, saying they would not agree to a Syrian precondition of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Meeting with Vollebaek in Jerusalem, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs David Levy responded positively to the relay from Damascus, according to Israel Radio. Calling the message important prior to the upcoming visit by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Levy said it was encouraging but didn't negate the problems involved.
Meanwhile, Golan Heights residents have invited Albright to visit the area to put a human face on the situation there. Marla Van Meter, English spokesperson for the Golan Residents Committee, told CNSNews.com that the letter from the committee was sent yesterday.
"We are convinced that you, as a facilitator in the Israel - Syrian negotiations, will find it invaluable to see the Golan," the letter said, "and the achievements of the 18,000 Israeli residents who have been living here for the last 32 years."
Recognizing that Albright's time is at a premium, the Golan leaders offered to meet her at her convenience wherever she desired.
Larry Schwartz, press attache at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, confirmed to CNSNews.com that the Embassy had received a copy of the letter. But he could not say whether the secretary would visit the Golan Heights during her impending visit to the region.
It's questionable whether Albright will take the Golan residents up on their offer. In some 25 visits to the region, former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher never managed to visit.
A grass roots organization of the 33 communities on the Golan Heights, the Golan Residents Committee is waging a campaign against dismantling any communities, kibbutzim or moshavim on the Golan. Van Meter said there is "a lot of anxiety among the residents" due to discussions about the region, but she said not a single resident has left their home because of it.
Strategic considerations also play into the negotiations. While Syria is waging war with Israel through Lebanon, the actual border between Syria and Israel is quiet in part because Israel maintains strategic and tactical parity with Syria by staying on the Heights.
Riparian rights are also a concern, with about 30% of Israel's water supply coming down from the Golan Heights, not a small issue in a desert region.