Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's calls on Israel to resume peace negotiations, and Israel's reluctance to do so, are evoking an unpleasant sense of deja vu for some Israelis. Yossi Sarid, a former education minister and opposition leader who retired from politics last year, was a young activist in the ruling Labour Party in the early 1970s, when an acquaintance asked him to convey a peace feeler from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. 'I came to her and told her, 'Sadat is willing to negotiate',' Mr Sarid recalled. 'I was certain she would be delighted. Instead, she stared at me with cold eyes, and said, 'This is nothing new. Do you know what he wants? We will have to give him all of the Sinai.'' Meir said she was not willing to part with that territory, which Israel captured from Egypt during the 1967 Middle East war, when it also occupied Syria's Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Mr Sarid said he disagreed with Meir and told her Israel should return all of Sinai for a peace deal. Had Israel responded to Sadat's overtures, the lives of thousands of soldiers it lost when it was taken by surprise by the Egyptian and Syrian armies in 1973 could have been spared, Mr Sarid said. Eventually, in 1978, a year after Sadat made a dramatic visit to Jerusalem, Israel agreed to do what Meir had refused: return all of the Sinai as part of peace arrangements with Egypt. 'We are in exactly the same situation today,' Mr Sarid said of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's refusal to respond to Syria's overtures. 'There is a danger of a war with Syria - not necessarily an all-out war, but rather attrition, limited attacks and all kinds of actions the Syrians know how to carry out by proxy.' While Mr Olmert visits Beijing this week to discuss trade and matters related to Middle East peace efforts, Mr Sarid said the Israeli army's failure to win a decisive victory in last summer's war with Hezbollah might have pushed the Syrians towards concluding that if they could not regain the Golan Heights by negotiations, a military option might work. 'I think their appetite has been heightened and that they have the impression that a limited action may catalyse a diplomatic process,' Mr Sarid said. The sense that Israel was edging towards further conflict prompted a leading Haaretz newspaper columnist, Uzi Benziman, to headline a recent column 'You, Me and the Next War'. That is the title of a play written a year after Israel's victory in 1967, predicting more fighting and more deaths. Since the summer, Mr Assad hasused the language of both confrontation and peace in referring to the future of Israeli-Syrian relations. In recent weeks, he and his foreign minister, Walid Muallem, have stressed in pronouncements to the western media that they are ready to reach a settlement with the Israelis, if only Mr Olmert's government would respond. 'Many voices are being raised in Israel' for dialogue with Damascus, Mr Assad said last month. 'So, I say to Olmert, let him try and see if we are bluffing.' Mr Muallem said that Syria was ready to resume talks over the Golan Heights that broke down seven years ago 'without preconditions'. Although Israeli analysts diverged over whether Mr Assad was genuinely interested in reaching a peace settlement, the Israeli government made it clear it was unimpressed by the messages from Damascus. The reluctance to engage mirrored the stance of the Bush administration in the face of the recent bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report urging a US dialogue with Syria. 'Israel has peace with two of its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, and is interested in expanding the circle of peace to include Lebanon and Syria,' said foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev. 'The question is whether there is a real possibility of peace with Syria. We are very cautious. Our analysis is that Syria is cynically exploiting the Israel card in order to reduce international pressure on Damascus.' In particular, Mr Regev said, Israel believed Syria wanted to show it was open to peace with Israel in order to take the international heat off it for what a UN investigation claimed was its involvement in the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Mr Regev said Syria's alliance with Iran and its support for the fundamentalist Hamas movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and for Hezbollah in Lebanon showed it was not really interested in peace. But Israeli proponents of talks with the Syrians said Damascus should be engaged precisely in order to pull the rug out from under Iran and the radical groups. 'There will be no greater blow to Hezbollah and Iran than a peace deal with Syria,' said Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the dovish Peace Now group. Domestic politics might be part of the explanation for Israel's wariness. Serious negotiations and the territorial price Israel would have to pay for peace by returning the Golan would shake up Mr Olmert's ruling coalition. His ally, the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, opposed relinquishing the heights to Syria. 'Our position is to make peace in exchange for peace, not peace in exchange for territory,' said Yisrael Beiteinu spokeswoman Irena Etinger. She said Israel should not negotiate with Syria until it 'pulls out of the axis of evil' and stopped supplying Hezbollah and Hamas. A poll published in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper last month showed that 67 per cent of Israelis favoured entering talks with Syria, but an almost equal number opposed returning the Golan Heights. Shaul Arieli, a reserve brigadier-general and member of Israel's Council for Peace and Security, said the government should be leading public opinion towards a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He said the chances of a war with Syria were high - not immediately but perhaps within five years or so - unless the Golan was relinquished. The Assad regime's legitimacy was bound up with its ability to restore the Golan to Syria, he said. Mr Arieli rejected the idea that Mr Assad was wedded to his alliance with Iran. 'He is dying to free himself of the Iranian embrace, but he cannot do so without receiving the Golan Heights,' he said. To achieve peace, Mr Arieli advocated negotiations on the basis of a 2002 Arab League plan that called for a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured during the 1967 war in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel and normalisation of relations with it. The Syrian state-controlled media, for its part, had not moderated its tone in line with Mr Assad's overtures. 'For tens of years until today, we have suffered and continue to suffer without interruption from the crimes of the colonialists, particularly the British and Americans and their Jewish Zionist agents, who destroy our homeland and kill the sons of our nation without distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant, between old men, children and women,' an article in the official Tishreen newspaper said on Sunday. It went on to accuse Britain of 'removing the scalps' of natives in the countries it colonised, linking the practice to contemporary actions by the US and Britain in Iraq and Israeli practices in the Gaza Strip. In the view of Tel Aviv University Middle East specialist Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, the Syrian regime regarded its survival as being bound up with a hard-line Arab nationalist ideology. Mr Assad's recent statements calling for talks 'are rhetoric to impress the United States and Europe. The Syrians want a half-open door to everyone. I don't see here a harbinger of a great strategic shift,' he said. By contrast, he said, Sadat did make a strategic decision to orient Egypt towards the west in the early 1970s, including expelling thousands of Soviet advisers a year before launching the 1973 war. 'He needed a war to undertake the shift because no one took him seriously,' Dr Maddy-Weitzman said. Although he didn't believe the Syrians were seeking a peace treaty, Dr Maddy-Weitzman said Mr Assad's overtures should be examined and that contacts between the two countries could help reduce tensions. Yaacov Amidror, former head of the Israeli army's research and assessment division, was dismissive of those who advocated that Israel returned the Golan out of fear there would be a war. He said Syria was in a much weaker position from which to make war than Egypt was in 1973. 'It has no Soviet support, it would have to fight alone, and it does not have Saudi Arabia willing to use the oil weapon,' he said. But for Mr Sarid, the memories of Meir's blunder were still vivid. He recalled that he had recently returned from studying in the US when he brought the Egyptian peace feeler to her attention and urged that Sinai be handed back. 'After that conversation, she asked a lot of people: 'What's happened to Yossi? What did he study over there?'' Mr Sarid said.