Secret Talks Between Israel, Syria Produced Framework for Peace

Israeli and Syrian negotiators held nearly two years of secret negotiations, coming up with a framework for a peace deal, before war erupted in Lebanon last summer, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported Tuesday.

According to the report, the two sides reached a series of understandings that included a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights — captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war — and an end to Syrian support for anti-Israel militant groups. The report did not identify its sources.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the talks as a private initiative. "No one in the government was involved in this matter," he told reporters in northern Israel.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry official dismissed the report as "absolutely baseless."

However, an Israeli government spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the contacts, confirmed that officials were aware of the talks, though they were not sanctioned by the government.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has recently signaled a desire to resume peace talks. Olmert says talks cannot take place until Syria ends its support for Palestinian militants and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and scales back its alliance with Iran. The White House also has rejected calls to engage Syria in diplomacy, accusing Syria of harboring leaders of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

According to Tuesday's report, the Israeli and Syrian representatives met secretly in Europe several times between September 2004 and July 2006. The talks were conducted with the knowledge of Israeli and Syrian leaders, it added.

Such an agreement would end one of the Middle East's most bitter conflicts. Syria hosts the headquarters of the radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and it is the closest ally of Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that waged a 34-day war against Israel last summer.

The report did not say why the talks ended, but the contacts were halted just after the outbreak of the war.

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Haaretz reported that Israel was represented in the talks by Alon Liel, a retired senior diplomat, and that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was briefed on the meetings. Sharon's successor, Olmert, also was informed, it said.

Silvan Shalom, Israel's foreign minister for much of the negotiating period, said he learned of the talks in Tuesday's newspaper. Dov Weisglass, a top aide to Sharon, told Army Radio that Sharon neither authorized nor was aware of the reported talks.

A woman who answered Liel's home phone on Tuesday said Liel would have no comment except that he hadn't represented anyone beside himself.

The Syrian representative in the talks was reportedly Ibrahim Suleiman, an American citizen who had visited Jerusalem and delivered a message on Syrian interest in an agreement with Israel.

The report said Syrian President Bashar Assad initiated the meetings, and that Turkish mediators made the first contacts between the two sides. The Turkish involvement ended in the summer of 2004, when an unidentified European took over as the leading go-between. Geoffrey Aronson, an American from the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, was also brought into the talks, it said.

Official peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 amid disagreements over an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel.

Syria wanted Israel to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, extending down to the Sea of Galilee on the western side. Israel refused to make such a pledge until the issues of security and normalization of relations were settled.

The countries have reportedly held back-channel talks in recent years, both through private initiatives or with tacit knowledge of officials. Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former chief negotiator with Syria, played down the significance of Tuesday's report.

"What we have here is yet another attempt to create an Israeli-Syrian channel. Given the official positions of Syria itself, Israel and the United States, I am doubtful that this is going to lead anywhere," he said. "By definition (these talks) have to remain informal and secret. The moment that a secret like that it out the channel is dead, it is over."

Mahdi Dahkhallah, a former Syrian information minister who still has close ties to the government, dismissed the report as an attempt to improve Israel's image after rebuffing peace overtures from Damascus. "Syria has always declared that it does not believe in secret contacts, and has nothing to hide under the table," Dahkhallah said in Damascus.

Haaretz published a text of the agreed-upon document, but it was not signed. It said the document was prepared in August 2005 and was updated during meetings in Europe, the last of which took place during last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah.