Report: Israel, Syria reach secret understandings
Haaretz reports that document of understandings for peace agreement formulated in series of unofficial meetings between representatives from Israel, Syria and Europe. According to document, Israel will withdraw from Golan Heights to lines of June 4, 1967; Syrian areas east of Golan to be demilitarized, park to be set up in order to allow Israel to retain control over use of waters of Jordan River, Lake Kinneret. Senior official who worked with Sharon says in response, 'Report is baseless'
The unofficial talks were held with the knowledge of senior official in the government of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and later in the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Officials at the Prime Minister's Office said that they were unaware of such agreements between Syria and Israel in the secret channel reported.
Dr. Alon Liel, who took part in the talks, said that "the headline might seem misleading." According to him, the report hints that an agreement was formulated, while there were only contacts.
Dov Weisglass, Ariel Sharon's bureau chief, told Ynet that "the Haaretz report is baseless. Sharon was never updated on such negotiations. Someone may have said something once, but it's on the level of gossip. There was no such thing in practice."
According to the report, Israel agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967. The timetable for the withdrawal remains open.
Syria demanded that the withdrawal will be carried out over a five-year period, while Israel asked to spread out the withdrawal over 15 years.
The document of understandings (a "non-paper") has no legal standings, but a political standing, and it was generated in discussions held between September 2004 and July 2006. The great part of the document was formulated in August 2005.
It was also agreed that militarized areas would be set up in the Golan Heights territories evacuated by the Israeli forces. Areas of lowered military presence would be set up in Israel, west of the international border, and in Syria, east of the Golan Heights. The ratio in terms of territory would be 1:4 in favor of Israel.
Syria agrees to end its support for Hizbullah, Hamas
On the water issue, it was agreed that Israel would retain control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). A park would be set up east of the border, which both Israelis and Syrians would be free to access and which would be run by the Syrians.
The park would be set up after the Israeli withdrawal is completed and the Syrian sovereignty is implemented, and would be open to Israelis without Syrian approval. The park would be located on a significant part of the Golan Heights.
The Israeli team for the meetings, the last of which was held during the second Lebanon war, was headed by former Foreign Ministry Director-General Dr. Alon Liel. The talks were held through a European mediator, and the Syrian side was represented by senior government officials, including Vice President Farouk al-Shara, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and an intelligence officer with the rank of general.
The talks were halted after the Syrians demanded to end the unofficial channel and hold a secret meeting between a deputy Syrian minister, an Israeli ministry's director-general and an official American representative. Israel rejected the request.
The Syrian representative to the talks, Ibrahim (Abe Suleiman), who has been living in the United States for many years and is an American citizen, visited Jerusalem and delivered a message regarding Damascus' wish to reach an agreement with Israel and use its connections with the US in order to lift the American embargo on Syria.
From Turkish hotel to talks in Europe
According to the Haaretz report, the contacts were launched by coincidence, after Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Turkey in 2004. Dr. Liel, who was also Israel's official representative in Ankara, was in Istanbul during the visit and stayed in the same hotel where the Syrian delegation was residing.
Officials at the Turkish Foreign Ministry hinted to Liel that the Israeli issue was widely discussed in a meeting between Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Several days after Liel returned to Israel, the Turkish ambassador invited him to a meeting and told him that Assad asked Erdogan to use Turkey's relations with Israel in order to advance the negotiations channel with Syria.
Israel headed by Ariel Sharon was not interested in the Turkish mediation, and Liel turned to Geoffrey Aronson the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who suggested that Suleiman, whom Assad knew as a child, becomes involved in the talks.
Later, talks were held in a European capital with the participation of Liel, a senior Foreign Ministry official of the European country and Suleiman. Suleiman and the European official traveled to Damascus to discuss the issue with senior Syrian officials.
Intelligence: Syria wants peace talks
Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that.Syria was slowly but surely lowering its readiness for war after a military beef up along the border with Israel.
Knesset Member Yossi Beilin (Meretz) said as he left the meeting that "if the prime minister listened to what we heard today, he should know that it would be national lawlessness not to quickly launch a dialogue with Syria in a bid to reach peace."
According to Beilin, "I believe Syria is very serious regarding negotiations and it's not serious not to open negotiations with them."
Last month, the head of research at the Military Intelligence told the committee that Syrian President Bashar Assad's peace overtures towards Israel were genuine.
His remarks contradicted an assessment by Mossad Chief Meir Dagan who rejected Assad's declarations as attempts to gain international legitimacy.