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Tentative deal would have returned Golan Heights to Syria

JERUSALEM—Working with the knowledge of their governments, private Israeli and Syrian negotiators spent two years crafting a tentative treaty aimed at resolving the decades-long conflict between the feuding Middle East neighbors, according to a key player and Israeli government officials who are familiar with the talks.

The talks, which the Israeli newspaper Haaretz first revealed Tuesday, collapsed last summer during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon. But the negotiators succeeded in crafting a rough proposal that could lay the foundation for official negotiations, people who are familiar with the project said.

Among the ideas: Israel would return the Golan Heights to Syria on the condition that Syria create a non-militarized park and grant Israelis unfettered access to the area. In return, Haaretz said, Syria would open diplomatic relations with Israel and sever support for the anti-Israel militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Syrian and Israeli officials distanced themselves from the negotiations Tuesday, but an Israeli government official told McClatchy Newspapers that the Foreign Ministry had been kept apprised of the talks, though not of their details.

A State Department official in Washington who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak on the subject said the White House had known about the talks, but didn't think that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had authorized them.

Such private initiatives have helped lay the groundwork for official talks in the past. During the 1980s, Mahmoud Abbas, who's now the president of the Palestinian Authority, met secretly with Israeli academics in talks that paved the way for the historic 1993 Oslo Accords, which recognized a Palestinian right to self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The report of the Israel-Syria talks comes as pressure is growing for the United States to rejuvenate stagnant Middle East peace negotiations.

Syria has offered repeatedly to begin peace talks with Israel, but Israel and the United States have rebuffed the offers and suggested that Syrian President Bashar Assad isn't serious.

The issue has divided Israelis. Olmert is among those who've rejected Syria's entreaties by saying that Assad must first demonstrate that he's serious about peace by cutting his ties to anti-Israeli militants.

On Tuesday, Olmert called the plan "a private initiative" and derided the Syrian attorney involved in the talks as "an eccentric from the U.S., someone not serious or dignified."

Other Israeli leaders and academics have pushed Olmert to see what Assad has to offer.

Shlomo Brom, a former head of strategic planning for Israel's military who took part in previous peace talks with Syria, characterized the proposal as a revealing starting point for negotiations.

"I think it's an interesting initiative because of what it teaches us about the Syrian position, so we should be attentive," said Brom, who's now a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Talks between Syria and Israel have gone nowhere since 2000, when the two sides came tantalizingly close to a peace treaty before it crumbled.

The private initiative began two years ago when the Turkish ambassador to Israel approached Alon Liel, a former director general in Israel's Foreign Ministry, on behalf of Assad, according to Haaretz.

Liel eventually sought out Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian businessman based in the United States who has close ties to Assad, the paper reported.

For the next two years, Liel told McClatchy Newspapers, the two worked on a deal with the knowledge of officials in Jerusalem and Damascus.

While Olmert said he knew nothing of the talks, an Israeli official told McClatchy on Tuesday that Liel had kept the Foreign Ministry apprised of the negotiations, though not about the details.

"We knew about the contacts. But no one gave him a mandate to negotiate," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There's no official sanction behind it."

After months of discussion and revision, the negotiators produced their final draft in the middle of the summer conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

Significant unresolved disputes remained, including how quickly Israel would leave the Golan Heights and who would retain access to the Jordan River, which feeds the Sea of Galilee abutting the Golan Heights.

But the tenets were solid: Israel would withdraw to its 1967 border, before it seized the Golan from Syria. The two sides would create a peace park in the area and ensure that Israelis would have free access to the scenic region that's now home to many Israeli wineries. Both sides also would have agreed to a demilitarized buffer zone.

The discussions came to an end, according to Haaretz, when Israel rebuffed attempts to transform them into official talks.

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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