Olmert: Talks with Syria 'never existed'

Israel, Damascus deny report that agreements reached between 2004-06.

assad 88 (photo credit: )
assad 88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday categorically denied that Israeli diplomats had held secret talks and reached agreements with Syrian representatives during former prime minister Ariel Sharon's term in office, saying that such talks "never existed - there wasn't even a fable [about it]." Speaking during a tour of the West Bank, the prime minister said that no one had informed him of any such event taking place. "I didn't know anything, and no one in the government knew," he said. "No government officials were involved in this matter."
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  • Let's not play the 'no talk' game (op-ed) Olmert called the report, which was released in Ha'aretz on Tuesday, a "private initiative of someone speaking to himself," adding that it was "not serious and not dignified, and there is no need to waste words on what has been said until now." David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's Office, said earlier of the reported talks that "the Israeli government is unaware of any such meetings." The Syrian Foreign Ministry also denied the reports. "That there were no contacts, and the report is totally false," said a statement released by the ministry. Sharon's former chief advisor Dov Weisglass, former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Yuval Steinitz and former foreign minister Silvan Shalom also refuted the claim. Weisglass said that Sharon never came across such a agreement. "It is very possible that a group of people met, negotiated and formulated a document. But, during Sharon's term as prime minister, did the Prime Minister's Office obtain an officially approved agreement on this or any other similar procedure? The answer is no," said Weisglass. In an interview with Israel Radio, Steinitz said that the report was an "absolute fabrication." He said that there had been no official contacts between Israel and Syria when Sharon was prime minister, during which time Steinitz served as FADC chairman. "There were unofficial contacts," he said, adding that, as part of a British initiative, he had met with a Syrian representative. The former FADC chairman said that when he reported the meeting to Sharon, the two agreed that it was impossible to reach any breakthrough with Syria until it uprooted terrorism. The Ha'aretz report Tuesday morning said that Israel and Syria had reached understandings on a future peace deal during clandestine talks held in Europe from September 2004 to July 2006. Likud MK Shalom told Army Radio that he first learned of the talks by reading the day's paper. He said the last contact Israel had had with a Syrian representative was in 2003 over the return of the remains of Israeli spy Eli Cohen. According to the report, the talks focused on a draft peace agreement, based upon Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a return to 1967 borders. Reportedly, Syria demanded that the move be made within five years, though Israel said the plan would be gradually implemented over 15 years. Moreover, Syria would be willing to discontinue support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and cut ties with Iran. The report also stated that Israel would have complete control over the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. MK Effi Eitam (NRP-NU) said that the apparent draft would "not be worth the paper it's written on," adding that the reported secret understandings "do not represent the stance of the Israeli public, which is opposed to any withdrawal in the North." Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, however, expressed support for withdrawing from the Golan Heights in exchange for true peace with Damascus. "I would be prepared to declare a full peace agreement with Syria and recognize Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights on one condition: that the Syrians give Israel the Golan Heights for a period of 25 years, and if there really is complete peace...after 25 years we would give the Golan back to Syria," Sheetrit told Army Radio. Ha'aretz reported that Israel was represented in the talks by Alon Liel, a former top diplomat, and that Sharon was briefed on the meetings. It also said that Olmert, then finance minister, had been informed. A woman who answered Liel's home phone said Liel would have no comment except that he hadn't represented anyone besides himself. 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 is out, the channel is dead - it is over." Supposedly, the Syrian representative in the talks was 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 had initiated the meetings, and that Turkish mediators had come to the first contacts between the two sides. The Turkish involvement ended in the summer of 2004, when an unknown European took over as the leading go-between. AP contributed to this report