Syria prefers alliance with Israel over Iran, Liel says

Former Foreign Ministry director-general describes unofficial talks with Syria during the war.

alon liel 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
alon liel 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Syria is more interested in creating an alliance with Western countries, including Israel, than it is with its current relationship with Iran, according to former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel. "Their alliance with Iran is not a natural one for the Syrians. They are not happy about it," said Liel. But the country is so isolated at this time that it would be foolish for it to give up that relationship unless it had forged a new one with Western countries, he said. As part of that bid, Syria was interested in seeking peace with Israel, Liel told reporters at a conference at the Netanya Academic College. It was the first time he had spoken publicly about the series of private secondary level talks, known as Track-2, that he had held with the Syrian officials for two-and-a-half years in hopes of brokering an understanding between the two enemy countries. The last meeting, he said, was held during the war last summer when the Syrians wanted to come to Europe to meet representatives from the Israeli government to talk about peace, even though Syria was allied both with Hizbullah and Iran. "A Syrian party suggested we should have a high-level meeting since it was an emergency situation," said Liel. "I talked to several people [in the government] and the answer was no." "This was mainly because of the Americans. The Israelis do not want to embarrass the Americans," he later told The Jerusalem Post. It was a response similar to the one he received in January 2004 when he first told the government that Syrian President Bashar Assad was interested in talking with Israel. Since the story of the private meetings Liel held with Syrian officials first broke in Haaretz earlier in the week, both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Syrian government have denied the story. On Thursday, however, Liel said that he kept the government abreast in writing of every meeting. What happened to the reports is for the government to worry about, said Liel. He added that as a veteran government official, he knew whom to contact when he wanted to present information. Liel described how the first Syrian overture to him occurred with the help of a Turkish diplomat who got in touch with him while Liel was on a private visit to Istanbul. He said that Assad had asked Turkey to mediate because it had good relations with both governments. "The message was passed to our Prime Minister's Office by the Turks directly and by myself," said Liel. The response was, "the Americans do not want us to do it," said Liel. For several months both he and Turkey tried to pressure Israel to change its mind, said Liel. When the government would not budge, Liel said, he came up with the idea of holding a series of Track 2 meetings rather than Track-1, which would have included high-level officials on both sides. At no time was he officially representing the Israeli government, he said, although he added he hoped his work would lead to a more formal understanding between the two countries. Liel insisted that he did inform the government of the meetings that occurred between him, a number of other Israelis, Syrian officials and some private individuals, including Syrian-American Ibrahim Suleiman. Similarly, the Syrian and Turkish governments were also kept in the loop, Liel said. A European government was involved, but Liel refused to identify which country had helped them. "What is important is that for two-and-a-half years we carried the message to the Israeli administration - not to one, not to two, not to three, and not to four officials; it was more - that Assad wants to talk and he is serious," said Liel. Initially Liel said he told the Syrians that the Israeli reluctance was the result of the Gaza withdrawal. "We explained to them that Israel cannot do Gaza and the Golan Heights together," said Liel. Then Israel left Gaza and they explained that it was because of further planned withdrawals under convergence. But now, Liel said, Olmert has dropped the convergence plan and on top of that, because of internal difficulties within the Palestinian Authority, it was not possible to hold talks with the Palestinians. So he thinks it is time that the Israeli public understands that it is possible to pursue peace with Syria. Unlike the Palestinians, Assad was capable of concluding peace talks with Israel, said Liel. "It is very clear to us that Assad wants to talk. This doesn't guarantee an agreement, but he is interested in launching negotiations with us," said Liel. In their talks with the Syrians, Liel said, he and others came up with an informal plan that he believed could solve the issue of the Golan Heights which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 during the Six Day War. The two groups also discussed confidence building measures including the return of the bones of Eli Cohen, an Israeli who was killed by the Syrians for spying for Israel in the 1960s. As part of the understanding Liel helped draw up, Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights back to the 1967 lines within a time frame of five to 15 years. A park, covering most of the Golan Heights, would be set up as a buffer zone with free access to Israelis. Israel would continue to control water use in the Jordan River and the Kinneret. Syria would end its support for Hizbullah and Hamas as well as agree to distance itself from Iran.