Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday categorically denied a report that Israelis held secret talks and reached agreements with Syrian representatives between September 2004 to July 2006, 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.
MKs close to Sharon deny talks with Syria
"I didn't know anything, and no one in the government knew," he said. "No government officials were involved in this matter."
Olmert called the alleged agreement, 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 beyond what has been said until now."
He was referring to former Foreign Minister director-general Alon Liel, who, according to the Ha'aretz report, took part in the meetings with an American of Syrian extraction and a European mediator.
A woman who answered Liel's home phone said Liel would have no comment except that he hadn't represented anyone besides himself.
The Ha'aretz report Tuesday morning said that Israelis and Syrians reached understandings on a future peace deal during clandestine talks held in Europe.
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.
Ha'aretz reported that 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 unnamed European mediator, believed to be a Swiss national, took over as the leading go-between.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry also denied the reports.
"There were no contacts, and the report is totally false," said a statement released by the ministry.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon's former chief advisor Dov Weisglass, former foreign minister Silvan Shalom and former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Yuval Steinitz all refuted the story, as did senior foreign ministry officials.
The US ambassador to Israel, Richard Jones, said that he was unaware of any such contacts, but that the initiative sounded to him like "another one of the private initiatives, and I assume that they happen all the time."
Jones rejected an implication in the story that the US was keeping Israel from negotiating with the Syrians, saying that while there were differences of opinion in Israel regarding whether to engage Syria diplomatically, the Israeli government was not "chomping at the bit" to start discussions with the Syrians.
Asked whether the US was opposed to Syrian-Israeli negotiations, Jones said the US did not want to "reward intransigent behavior."
Weisglass said Sharon never came across such an 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.
Likud MK Shalom, who served as foreign minister during the period in question, 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.
A senior Foreign Ministry official dismissed the significance of the informal discussions, saying that although so-called "Track 2" discussions led to the Oslo accords in the early 1990s, Israeli government officials Uri Savir and Yoel Singer were involved in those discussions, something that was not the case in this current initiative.
In an interview with Israel Radio, Steinitz said that the report was an "absolute fabrication." He said there had been no official contact between Israel and Syria when Sharon was prime minister.
"There were unofficial contacts," he said, adding that, as part of a British initiative, he had met with a Syrian representative. He said that when he reported that meeting to Sharon, the two agreed that it was impossible to reach any breakthrough with Syria until it uprooted terrorism.
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.
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."
AP contributed to this report.