- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Israel could convert a privately negotiated blueprint into a lasting peace deal with Syria within months if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is willing to take the political risk, a key Israeli drafter of the plan said yesterday.

Alon Liel, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said he thinks Syria remains interested in the outlines of the unofficial deal, the product of two years of secret, unofficial contacts monitored closely by both the Jewish state and Damascus.

Under the accord, Syria would recover the Golan Heights from Israel in exchange for a “strategic reorientation” of its foreign policy that would include breaking its links with Iran and radical anti-Israel Islamist groups.

“If Israel wanted, they could finalize an agreement with Syria in four to six months, but it would take courage and decisiveness at the top,” Mr. Liel said in a teleconference with U.S. reporters. “I’m not sure is prepared to do it.”

Both Syria and Israel have vehemently denied that private talks had any official status and played down speculation that a new round of negotiations was in the offing. The Jerusalem daily Ha’aretz first reported the back-channel talks in January.

“We have never sanctioned anybody to speak to the Syrians, and the prime minister first learned of these conversations through the newspaper report,” Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisen said.

But Mr. Liel said he and his negotiating counterpart, Syrian-American Ibrahim Suleiman, regularly briefed top officials in their respective governments on the progress of the talks, which took place first in Turkey and then under Swiss government auspices between 2004 and mid-2006.

Mr. Liel said the plan has had an enthusiastic reception in Israel, especially among pro-peace leftist groups. He and Mr. Suleiman have been invited to brief a Knesset committee next month on the substance of the agreement.

Mr. Liel said the secret contacts broke off last summer when Israel rejected a Syrian offer to upgrade the talks by sending official government representatives.

Under the blueprint, Syria would regain the entire Golan Heights area lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, with the Israeli withdrawal to be completed within five to 15 years.

But Syria would then create a demilitarized “nature park” in the Golan, guaranteeing access for Israeli workers and tourists and promising not to cut vital water rights for Israel.

More important, Mr. Liel said, Syria is prepared to drop its alliance with Iran and end its support for radical movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Khalid Mashaal, political leader of Hamas, would be asked to leave Damascus, where he is based.

Israel, in turn, would work to improve ties between Syria and the United States. The Bush administration has clashed repeatedly with Syrian President Bashar Assad, accusing Damascus of trying to undermine U.S.-backed governments in Iraq and Lebanon and aiding Iran’s push to dominate the region.

Mr. Liel said a deal with Syria would be a tough sell politically in Israel right now, but said Israeli officials told him a bigger obstacle during the secret talks was opposition from Washington.

“Their excuse was always, ‘We don’t want to embarrass the United States at this stage,’” he said.

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