Wednesday, January 17, 2007
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
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
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
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.