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Israel Says Government Was Not Involved in Talks With Syria

Israel's prime minister says government officials were not involved in reported unofficial negotiations with Syria that produced what some hope could form the basis of a peace deal.

Commenting Tuesday on a story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the talks were a private initiative. He said an American citizen involved in the meetings is "an eccentric."

Syria has denied that negotiations took place.

The Israeli newspaper says a researcher at the U.S. Foundation for Middle East Peace, Geoffrey Aronson, was involved in the talks, which included a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry, Alon Liel. The newspaper says the Syrians were represented by Ibrahim Suleiman - also American.

The paper reports that the meetings were held between 2004 and 2006, and that they produced a document calling for an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights. Haaretz says the Israeli and Syrian governments were kept informed about the talks.

Spokesmen for Mr. Olmert said the government was not aware of the secret meetings until Tuesday. Haaretz says the talks took place when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and, afterwards, when Mr. Olmert took over. The newspaper says the talks ended in August 2006.

Israel captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed the strategic plateau.

Official peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.