Israel `in secret Syria talks'

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Jerusalem - Israeli army officers secretly met Syrian officials in Washington this month and told them Israel was ready to withdraw from most of the Golan Heights, the Israeli opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, said yesterday.

The Israelis also laid out their conditions for such a withdrawal, Mr Netanyahu said after a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee. "This is a policy that is the first step in withdrawing from all of the Golan and removing the Israeli tankforce that effectively blocks a Syrian attack," he added.

Mr Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, said the meeting between Israeli officers and Syria's ambassador to Washington, Walid Muallem, was within the past two weeks. He called it part of the government's attempt to conclude a peace agreement with Syria secretly to sidestep opposition in Israel and then to present the public with a deal.

Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, did not deny the meeting took place. But he added: "He [Netanyahu] couldn't have seen any papers on withdrawal because such documents were not handed over."

Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, said he offered a minimal pull-out, followed by a three-year testing period of normalisation before a final withdrawal would be negotiated.

Mr Peres said yesterday that though formal negotiations have been suspended for months, both sides have kept in touch.

Israeli-Syrian talks are due to resume in Washington this week.