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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

BACKGROUND: How the covert contacts transpired

By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent

It began exactly three years ago. In January 2004, Syrian President Bashar Assad came to Turkey for an important visit, some say a historic one. By complete coincidence, Dr. Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director general and former Israeli ambassador to Ankara, was in Istanbul and staying at the same hotel as the Syrian delegation. His friends in the Turkish Foreign Ministry hinted to Liel that Israel had a respectable spot in the conversations between Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

A few days after Liel's return to Israel, he was invited to a meeting with the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Feridun Sinirlioglu. The Turkish ambassador told Liel that Assad had asked Erdogan to use Turkey's good relations with Israel to remove the rust from the negotiation channel with Syria. Liel was asked to put out discreet feelers in the bureau of then prime minister Ariel Sharon to find out if there were an Israeli partner for covert talks with Syria, to be mediated by Turkey.

Liel brought Geoffrey Aronson from the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace into the picture. Aronson, who is Jewish, had wandered among the capitals of the Middle East, including Damascus, Beirut and Amman, and suggested bringing in Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman, a Syrian-Alawite businessman who had been living in a suburb of Washington, D.C. for many years. Suleiman's family is from the same village as the Assad family, and senior American officials had used his good mediation skills many times to make contact with Damascus. Suleiman had also been involved in opening the gates of Syria to the Jews remaining there who wanted to move to Israel.

Suleiman left for Damascus. He arrived at the home of the Turkish ambassador to Syria in a vehicle from the president's bureau to report that the Syrians were prepared to begin negotiations with Israel immediately: formal negotiations, certainly not "academic talks." The Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem didn't care whether Liel and his friends sat down with the Syrians to hear what they had to say − but no negotiations. The Israeli reason (or excuse): The Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria.

Covert meetings in a European capital

At the end of the summer of 2004, Sinirlioglu told Liel, with great regret, that the Turkish channel had reached a dead end. But the trio of Liel, Aronson and Suleiman didn't give up. In September, they met in a European capital that agreed to provide cover and funding for a covert Israeli-Syrian channel via a senior official in that country's foreign ministry. Since autumn 2004, seven more meetings have been held. (Haaretz was provided the details about the conversations, on condition that the identities of the mediator and two other Israelis who participated in some of the meetings not be published.)

Following each meeting, as soon as he returned to Israel, Liel gave a full report to a senior official Foreign Ministry official. Sharon's bureau also received a full situation report. Suleiman joined Liel on one of his visits to the Foreign Ministry and personally described Syria's position to the officials in attendance. The European mediator also shared his impressions with the professional staff in Jerusalem.

To allow the European mediator to form his own impressions regarding the Syrians' attitude toward the covert channel, Suleiman invited him to join him on his trips to Damascus. Each time they landed there, an official car awaited them near their plane. They were taken to the office of Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara, and occasionally met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and a senior official in Syrian intelligence.

The European mediator had the impression that the Syrian leadership was treating the matter very seriously and was not wasting his time or the taxpayer's money on "futile academic talks." He recalled that the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians began with talks among academics, with the assistance of a European country.

"I was convinced that the Syrians want a peace agreement with you," the European mediator reported directly to official Israeli sources even before the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and the investigation that began afterward. His impression was that the Syrian motive for the murder went far deeper than fear of revenge from the United States or France, which points to Assad as the one responsible for Hariri's death.

"Farouk Shara told me radical Islam constitutes a threat to Syria and that peace is the only way to halt it," the mediator said. He said the Syrians told him that in a few years, they would lose their oil sources and need significant amounts of foreign currency to purchase energy from external sources. The Alawite regime realizes, the European mediator said, that in order to survive, it has to bring foreign currency into Syria, and that no sane businessman would invest his fortune in a country that is not at peace with its neighbors.

While in Damascus, the European mediator heard about Syria's readiness to include its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas in its agenda for peace negotiations with Israel. He even reported identical comments he heard from the the Syrian Foreign Ministry's legal adviser, Riad Daoudi, at the 'Madrid+15 Conference' on Friday.

Daoudi's refusal to befriend the Israeli delegation at the Madrid conference is in line with the Syrians' approach in the European channel regarding proposals for Syrian gestures toward Israel, such as the digging up the bones of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, information on missing Israeli soldiers or a visit to the grave of Rabbi Haim Vital.

"Israel has held onto our land for 40 years now and rejects are request to open negotiations, and after all that, they expect confidence-building steps from us," the Syrians argue.

Wartime meetings

The discussions dealt with all the matters that occupied the official negotiation teams: borders, water, security and normalization. Suleiman, representing the Syrian position, made it clear from the first moment that it would be a shame to waste time on futile attempts to move Syria from its position regarding the June 4, 1967 borders. Feelers regarding the possibility of territorial exchange were dismissed out of hand.

Nonetheless, the Syrians showed surprising flexibility regarding everything connected to a timetable for evacuating Israeli communities in the Golan Heights, water use and primarily the concept of building a "peace park" in the buffer zone that would be open to Israeli visitors.

The final document was formulated in August 2005, and has since been changed slightly. The final meeting took place a year later, in the midst of the second Lebanon war, on a day in which eight Israelis were killed by Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rockets in the Galilee. Suleiman announced that the Syrians had done all they could with the covert channel and were suggesting a meeting between a Syrian representative at the rank of deputy minister and an Israeli official at the rank of director general. They asked that C. David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, also participate in the meeting.

That was the end of the story.

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