Saturday, February 03, 2007

Israel - Syria negotiations revealed

My secret talks with Syria, by Israeli envoy

By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem
Last Updated: 1:20am GMT 02/02/2007

  • Audio: Tim Butcher on Israel's talks with Syria
  • A retired Israeli diplomat went public yesterday about secret talks between Israel and one of its most implacable enemies, Syria, describing how negotiators met in a luxury Swiss hotel and dodged the media for three years.

    Providing a rare insight into the tortuous "back-channel" diplomacy in the region, Alon Liel, a former senior civil servant in the Israeli foreign ministry, described shuttling to and from Switzerland for covert meetings with Ibrahim Suleiman, a dual-national American-Syrian, closely linked to Damascus.

    They discussed a plan to end 60 years of hostility, with Israel offering to give back the Golan Heights, occupied in the 1967 war, in exchange for Syria ending its backing of Hamas and Hizbollah.

    The talks survived crises in Israel when prime minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and in Syria when the regime of Bashar al-Assad was almost brought down by turmoil in neighbouring Lebanon.

    But in the end the talks failed last summer because Washington put pressure on its close ally, Israel, not to have dealings with Syria, a country linked by President George W Bush to his so-called "axis of evil".

    >The collapse of the talks a few months ago led Mr Liel to break silence, hoping publicity might resuscitate contacts so Syria can be persuaded to end its alignment with Islamic radical groups such as Hamas. "My feeling is that Syria is now ready to switch orientation," Mr Liel said.

    "For Syria to switch orientation is much more important for the western world than seeking peace to end the Israeli-Syrian conflict.

    "If we can pull Syria out of the camp of Islamic fundamentalists and break its association with the Hizbollah, Hamas and rebel insurgents in Iraq, then that is of great value to us all."

    During "hundreds of hours of conversations" Mr Liel said the discussion centred on the Golan Heights, the massif overlooking Damascus taken from Syria in 1967.

    The fact that Israeli soldiers can today peer down into the Syrian capital has long been a thorn in the side of relations between the two countries but Damascus's support of groups such as Hamas meant attempts to negotiate a return of the Golan have always failed.

    Mr Liel found conditions had changed this time, with Mr Suleiman indicating a different attitude in Mr Assad's regime.

    The pair hatched a plot whereby Israel would verbally relinquish sovereignty of the Golan Heights but not physically hand over control for 15 years, in which time Syria would have to prove it no longer backed anti-Israeli groups.

    Perhaps as interesting as the details of what was negotiated was Mr Liel's account of how the talks were organised.

    He admitted to being surprised that in this era of media leaks and hi-tech surveillance, the parties were able to maintain secrecy for three years.

    He said the professionalism and skill of Swiss officials, acting as intermediaries, was largely responsible for the talks remaining hidden. With their assistance most of the meetings were held at the luxurious Bellevue Palace Hotel in Bern although when the World Economic Forum was held nearby they were moved to another city to avoid the media.

    Mr Liel explained the subtle way he remained "deniable" for the government. As a former diplomat he was not officially on the government's payroll and while he filed full reports on each of the meetings to his government he was never fully authorised to represent Israel. This allowed the government of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, to dismiss the talks as purely private and without the blessing of his administration.

    Similarly, Mr Suleiman claimed to be representing Mr Assad, although the president, aware that his domestic audience would look unfavourably at any concessions to Israel, has publicly denied he knew of the bilateral talks.

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