If Israel attacks, Damascus will defend itself with all its might, but Syria will not start the war, said Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Soliman at a press conference following an unprecedented appearance before an Israeli parliamentary panel in Jerusalem on Thursday.
During his meeting with Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee members, Soliman made an impassioned appeal for the two countries to restart peace talks, saying a deal could be wrapped up within six months.
The businessman said he did not officially represent the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but asserted he had good contacts with high-level officials in Damascus.
Earlier this year, it emerged that Soliman held eight rounds of secret, unofficial talks with former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Liel, with the knowledge of leaders in the two countries.
"Syria right now is ready to speak peace. I challenged the Israeli government to answer President Bashar's call for peace and sit down together," Soliman told reporters, "I think it can happen in six months."
Since news of the unofficial talks first broke in January, Israeli officials have been interested in hearing what Soliman had to say, and the panel's session, scheduled to last an hour, went on for 2 1/2 hours.
In the course of their talks, Soliman and Liel drew up a tentative peace proposal to end one of the Middle East's most bitter conflicts. The plan called for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights it seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, and for Syria to end its backing of armed extremists, like Hizbullah guerrillas who warred with Israel last summer.
Liel, who also took part in the press conference, said, “We are enemies, and each country is holding its own cards. The Syrians are inflexible with regards to the Golan Heights; we tried to find a formula that would satisfy both sides."
'We can use his help'
Soliman and Liel approached their respective governments about reopening formal peace negotiations, broken off in 2000, but neither country responded, committee members cited Soliman as saying.
"They suggested that there be officials (in the talks), and there wasn't any response from either side," Lawmaker Colette Avital said.
Soliman was invited to address the lawmakers so they could assess his claims to ties with top figures in the Damascus regime. Israel, which has acknowledged his talks with Liel but distanced itself from them, has questioned the quality of Soliman's contacts.
In his testimony before the parliament panel, Soliman did not identify his contacts in Syria, lawmakers said. Still, committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi said he received the impression that Soliman has "relayed messages more than once between Israel and Syria over the years, and this is evidence of his stature.
"We can use his help because he has contacts with the Syrian leadership in order to spell out our demands, and not just hear what he has to say," Hanegbi added.
Soliman and Liel last met in late July, during the Israel-Lebanon war.
Assad said repeatedly after the war that he was interested in restarting negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has insisted that Assad end his support for Palestinian militant groups and scale back his ties with Iran. His office had no comment on Soliman's appearance before the parliamentary committee.
Israel has used informal contacts in the past. The talks that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians began as meetings between academics and unofficial representatives of the two sides.