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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Thursday it was ready to talk peace with Syria, whose leader is visiting Paris on the heels of talks there between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The prime minister said that he would be willing to immediately open negotiations anywhere, anytime, as long as the talks are held without preconditions, either from Israel or from Syria," Israeli cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio.
"The prime minister has held a consistent line in the past few months since taking office in favour of opening talks ... Israel does not place preconditions. Israel offers the hand of peace," Hauser said.
Speculation on a Syria peace track rose as prospects for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations dimmed, with President Mahmoud Abbas resisting appeals from Israel and the United States to relaunch suspended talks without insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank.
A senior official travelling with Netanyahu said in Paris on Wednesday said the Israeli leader told Sarkozy he was ready to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, raising the possibility of long-stalled peace negotiations being renewed.
"Sarkozy raised the Syrian track, and Netanyahu replied he was ready to meet with Assad anywhere, anytime, on the basis that there are no preconditions," the official said.
In a speech in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel "ought not make light of the signs of readiness for peace coming recently from Damascus."
Assad was due in Paris on Thursday for two days of talks. He has expressed interest in renewing negotiations with Israel alongside moves to steer Syria out of Western isolation.
Visiting Brazil, Israeli President Shimon Peres was quoted as saying on Tuesday: "I call upon President Bashar al-Assad: let us launch direct, immediate negotiations, without intermediaries, without conditions, and without delays."
Israel and Syria held inconclusive talks which faltered in 2000 over the demand by Damascus for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in a 1967 war and later annexed.
Turkey later mediated a limited series of contacts between the two countries, which failed to result in any formal negotiations.
Israel accuses Syria of helping to arm its militant enemies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip -- Hezbollah and Hamas, and has in the past demanded such assistance be halted as a condition for holding peace talks.
(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Reuters