Israel knew of secret peace talks with Syria, say officials

Israeli officials have confirmed that the Foreign Ministry knew about a series of peace talks that have taken place in Europe between Syrians and an Israeli team headed by a former senior diplomat. The teams discussed Israel handing back the Golan Heights, which it has occupied since the Six Day War in 1967, to Syria under a formula providing for President Bashar Assad to stop giving support to Hamas and Hizbollah and to distance his regime from Iran.

The news that Israelis and Syrians held seven meetings up to August - after the start of the Lebanon war - has fuelled the debate in Israel's security establishment over whether President Assad's recent peace overtures should be taken seriously.

The Israeli interlocutors included Alon Liel, the former director general of the Foreign Ministry, and the talks were attended by a "mediator" from an unnamed European country. The Syrian representative was Ibrahim Suleiman, who lives in the US and has American citizenship.

The talks were revealed yesterday in the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which said that the European mediator and Mr Suleiman, who reportedly comes from the same village as President Assad, held eight separate meetings during the process with high-ranking Syrian officials, including the Vice-President, Farouk Sharaa, the Foreign Minister, Walid Mualem, and a general in Syrian intelligence. The newspaper said the talks were halted last year because Israel rejected a Syrian demand to make the talks official at the level of director general and deputy minister.

Amid a welter of official denials in Jerusalem that the contacts were anything but an unofficial freelance operation unsanctioned by the government, and claims in Damascus that the report was "baseless", an Israeli official acknowledged that the Foreign Ministry had been informed of the talks but insisted that Dr Liel had not been in any way "mandated " to conduct them. According to a "non-paper" discussed between the two parties - diplomatic language for an unsigned document without legal status - and printed in Ha'aretz, the two sides envisaged Israel's acknowledgement of Syrian sovereignty "based on" the 4 June 1967 line but with the border to be "determined by both parties" with the sanction of the US and the UN.

The draft provides for Israel to retain control over the river Jordan and the Sea of Galilee while much of the Golan would become a "park" open for tourism, supervised by Syria but with free access for Israelis. Under the proposals there would be a demilitarised zone on each side of the border, but the Syrian DMZ would be four times as big.

As in the earlier open - and abortive - negotiations with Syria at the turn of 1999 and 2000, culminating in the breakdown of talks during Ehud Barak's premiership at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the draft provides for an early warning station on Mount Hermon to enforce demilitarisation, which would be operated by the US. The document does not mention any commitments by Syria to end support of the "rejectionist" Palestinian organisations - Hamas and Islamic Jihad - or of Hizbollah as a military force.

Ha'aretz quotes Geoffrey Aaronson, of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who was involved in the talks, as saying that an agreement "under American auspices" would have called on Syria to ensure Hizbollah would function only as a political party. Mr Aaronson, who was not available for comment last night, told Ha'aretz that Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas, would have had to leave Damascus.

The newspaper said the process started in January 2004 when President Assad indicated an interest in talks with Israel to Turkish officials who passed the message on to Dr Liel, who was then asked to put out "discreet feelers" to the bureau of the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon. It added that Jerusalem had no objection to Dr Liel talking to Syrian contacts but there should be no negotiations. Ha'aretz said the "reason (or excuse) was that the Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria".

But while the Turkish-inspired talks failed, they were resumed in autumn 2004 under the auspices of "a European capital", which provided funding and a mediator for further talks, and that Dr Liel gave a full report to his Foreign Ministry after each meeting.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, who has resisted calls to open negotiations with Syria, said yesterday: "I knew of nothing. No one in the government was involved... It was a private initiative on the part of an individual.

"From what I read, his interlocutor was an eccentric from the US, someone not serious or dignified, and it is inappropriate to say any more than I have said."

Mark Regev, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said it was "not routine" but "not uncommon" for academics or non government organisations from countries such as Syria and Israel to speak to each other.

Key points of the secret pact

* An agreement of principles will be signed by the two countries, and following the fulfilment of all commitments, a peace agreement will be signed.

* Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of 4 June 1967. The timetable for the withdrawal remains open: Syria demanded the pullout be carried out over a five-year period, while Israel asked for the withdrawal to be spread out over 15 years. At the buffer zone, along Lake Kinneret, a park will be set up for joint use by Israelis and Syrians. The park will cover a significant portion of the Golan Heights.

* Israel will retain control over the use of the waters of the Jordan river and Lake Kinneret.

* The border area will be demilitarised along a 1:4 ratio (in terms of territory) in Israel's favour.

* Syria will also agree to end its support for Hizbollah and Hamas and will distance itself from Iran.

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