Israeli Lawmakers Probe Unofficial Israeli-Syrian Talks

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - At a time of renewed debate over whether the West should engage Syria or continue to shun it as a terror-sponsor, Israeli lawmakers are examining an earlier, unsuccessful bid to find a settlement between the two Mideast foes.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) angered President Bush last week when she ignored administration opposition and held talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israel also criticized Pelosi for delivering the wrong message to Assad - that Israel was ready for peace negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had met with Pelosi before her trip to Syria, said he told her that Assad had to stop supporting terrorism and preparing for war before Israel would consider peace talks.

Between 2004 and 2006, secret but reportedly unauthorized talks took place between a former Israeli diplomat and an American of Syrian origin, who viewed himself as a go-between in efforts to secure a peace deal.

The talks came to light last January, and both Israel and Syria distanced themselves from them. However, news of the private diplomacy renewed debate in Israel over whether the country should be negotiating with one of its most dangerous enemies - a debate fueled by Pelosi's visit to Damascus.

On Thursday, the American "go-between," Ibrahim Suleiman, addressed the Israeli Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the effort. Earlier he said he would tell the lawmakers there was a "genuine willingness in Damascus to initiate peace talks with Israel, which at the very least requires Israel to test the waters."

Peace with Syria would allow the Assad regime to join the war against terrorism, he said.

But committee member Zvi Hendel characterized Suleiman as well-intentioned but naive.

"He's a very nice man who really wants to contribute to peace between Syria and Israel," Hendel told Cybercast News Service. But Suleiman could not exchange places with Assad and Assad does not think the same way Suleiman does, he said.

Hendel said Syria was clearly not interested in peace. Assad wanted to talk about peace now only to make a good impression in the West, he argued.

If Assad really wanted peace with Israel he would not be giving weapons to Hizballah, the Lebanese-based Shi'ite terrorist group, to use against the Jewish state, Hendel added.

The Bush administration is trying to isolate Syria for its support of terror groups and for its attempts to undermine the Lebanese government. The Ba'athist regime in Damascus has for decades viewed Lebanon as part of "Greater Syria," and its military occupied the smaller neighboring country until forced to withdraw under international pressure in 2005.

Israel has also rejected talks with Syria, saying that recent overtures from Damascus cannot be taken seriously while Assad continues to allow Palestinian terror groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to have their headquarters in his capital.

Israeli lawmaker Zehava Galon of the left-wing Meretz party, who initiated the call for Thursday's committee hearing, said she believes it is in Israel's strategic interest to open direct negotiations with Syria.

Suleiman's Israeli interlocutor in the secret talks was former diplomat Alon Liel, whom the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted was not acting with its sanction.

An Israeli foreign intelligence agent who accompanied Liel to the secret talks told the Knesset committee on Thursday that he did not believe the Syrians were serious about peace. The Israeli agent testified that Suleiman had in fact told him that Assad did not want peace, but that he, Suleiman, hoped he could pull the Syrian leader in that direction.

A central feature of the proposal hatched by Suleiman and Liel was the creation of a "peace park" on the Golan Heights which would be under Syrian sovereignty but which Israelis could visit freely without visas.

Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967 and annexed it in 1981. The strategic value of holding onto the Heights is apparent to a majority of Israelis (unlike the West Bank, which is the subject of more political division in the country.) Before Israel captured the strategic plateau during the Six-Day War, Syrian gunners fired frequently at residents of the Galilee valley below.

More than 13,000 Israelis now live on the Golan, which is also is a popular outdoor vacation spot.

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