By Jeffrey Heller
BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel (Reuters) - Israel is ready to open peace talks with Syria immediately and without preconditions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday after talks with U.S. President Barack Obama.
The offer followed Obama's first White House meeting with the Israeli leader, who said he agreed on the need to widen the peace process across the Arab world but stopped short of embracing the declared U.S. goal of Israel accepting there should be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"There was agreement that we must immediately launch peace talks," Netanyahu told reporters at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport after returning from talks in Washington.
"I said I was ready to immediately open peace talks with the Palestinians, by the way, with the Syrians as well, of course, without preconditions," Netanyahu added.
"But I made it clear that any peace settlement must find a solution to Israel's security needs."
Netanyahu, whose right-leaning coalition took office nearly two months ago, had appeared cool to the idea of restarting peace talks with Syria, launched a year ago by his centrist predecessor Ehud Olmert under Turkish mediation.
Despite his pledge not to set preconditions, Netanyahu has in the past expressed opposition to Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it captured in 1967 and which Syria wants returned as part of a peace deal.
Olmert's Turkish-mediated talks with Syria stalled late last year. Last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul urged Netanyahu to resume the negotiations and said Ankara was ready to continue as a mediator.
TALKS WITH PALESTINIANS
Opening the door to talks with Syria could help Netanyahu deflect pressure from the Obama administration to resume statehood negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
With Hamas Islamists in charge of the Gaza Strip and little progress during the U.S. presidency of George W. Bush, Netanyahu has said talks should focus on economic, security and political issues, leaving the question of statehood for later.
Palestinians reject that approach, saying they will not negotiate until Netanyahu commits to a two-state solution and halts expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Obama sees Israeli-Palestinian progress as crucial to repairing Washington's image in the Muslim world and to persuading moderate Arab states to join a united front against Iran.
During his U.S. visit, Netanyahu sought to shift attention away from areas of discord over the stalled Palestinian talks to what he described as common ground over preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and for launching a wider Middle East peace process that engages Arab states aligned with Washington.
"There was agreement on the need to widen the peace process to include Arab countries -- in other words, not only that Israel must provide answers and the Palestinians must provide answers, but Arab countries must provide concrete answers at the beginning stage of the process," Netanyahu said on his return.
Netanyahu was involved in U.S.-supervised talks between Syria and Israel during his previous term as prime minister in the 1990s. Those talks collapsed in 2000.
(Reporting by Joseph Nasr and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)