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Syria is serious about resuming peace talks with Israel, and during the summer's Lebanon war even proposed holding a secret emergency meeting with Israeli officials in Europe, a retired Israeli diplomat said Thursday.
Israel's leaders quickly distanced themselves from unofficial talks the Israeli, former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel, held with a Syrian. Liel, going public for the first time Thursday, said he briefed government officials every step of the way.
He said he believed his counterpart, Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Suleiman, also had channels to the Syrian government.
"Our testimony is that it is very clear to us that Assad wants to talk," said Liel, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Tuesday when the talks were leaked in a newspaper report, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the talks. "I knew of nothing. No one in the government was involved in this matter. It was a private initiative on the part of an individual who spoke with himself," Olmert told reporters. "From what I read, his interlocutor was an eccentric from the United States, someone not serious or dignified."
Syrian officials said Tuesday that reports of an agreement were "baseless."
In June, the participants wrote a two-page "non-paper" to sum up their talks, Liel said. The centerpiece was a proposal to turn part of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed in 1981, into a "peace park." Syria would be the sovereign in all of the Golan, but Israelis could visit the park freely, without visas.
The Israeli side proposed a Golan pullout over 15 years, the Syrians over five.
Previous peace talks collapsed in 2000 because of a dispute over where the Israeli-Syrian border should run. Syria said any peace deal would have to restore Syrian sovereignty over all the territory captured in 1967, while Israel feared a complete withdrawal could endanger its security and access to water sources, noting that the international border does not reach the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Liel and Suleiman were brought together by Geoffrey Aronson, head of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington. Eight meetings were held, Liel said, including several reportedly under the auspices of the Swiss.
Liel would not say who his hosts were, but said he believed they used their own diplomatic contacts to check whether the messages coming out of the talks were reaching the Syrian government.
The last meeting took place in late July, during the Israel-Lebanon war, Liel said. On that day, several Israelis were killed by rockets fired by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which Israel says is backed and funded by Syria and Iran.
"It was a very difficult day, and the Syrian party suggested that since it's a war and an emergency situation, let's have a very quick track one meeting, high-level meeting, on the level of deputy ministers ... with an American in the room," Liel told a conference at the Netanya Academic College.
Liel said he told Israeli government officials of the offer, and pleaded with them to accept. "And the answer was `no, no we don't want to meet them'," he said.
He said he believes the Israeli government is reluctant to resume peace talks with Syria because the idea of giving up the Golan is unpopular in Israel and because it would counter Washington's policy of trying to isolate Syria.
Liel said he made it very clear at the beginning of each meeting that he did not represent the Israeli government, but that he routinely updated Israeli officials, as well as the Turkish government, after each round. The Turkish government had initially been approached by the participants as a possible sponsor, but turned them down.
Aronson said the time is ripe for a resumption of peace talks, though he acknowledged that Syria could just be feigning interest in resuming talks to get into Washington's good graces. "There is a reasonable basis to assume that well-intentioned official representatives have something to talk about when they sit down," he said.