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Israel's Parliament Reviews Unofficial Israel-Syria Talks


A Syrian-American businessman and a former senior Israeli diplomat briefed a high-level Israeli parliamentary committee Thursday about their efforts to revive Israeli-Syrian peace talks. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem that both say peace is possible between the countries.

Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian-American businessman with close ties to Syria's leadership, and Alon Liel, the former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry briefed the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the prospects for peace with Syria. After their talks, they told reporters they believe Israel and Syria could conclude a peace agreement in six months.

Suleiman and Liel held eight rounds of Swiss-brokered unofficial talks over the past three years. Both men say the talks took place with the knowledge and approval of senior officials in both countries. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has downplayed the talks, saying Suleiman does not speak for the Syrian government, but Knesset members invited him to Israel to explain Syria's position. Suleiman says Syria is ready for peace with Israel.

"Syria is ready to talk peace right now," he said. "I am convinced that Bashar Assad [Syria's leader] is very sincere and very realistic in his talk. He wants to talk peace with Israel. Israel, please answer him. Talk peace to him."

Israel and Syria held multiple rounds of peace talks brokered by officials in the Clinton administration, but the talks collapsed in 2000 over the issue of who would control the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Israel captured the area along with the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

During their unofficial talks, Suleiman and Liel drew up a plan for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, and for Syria to stop its support for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas. Under their plan the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee would be turned into a park that could be used by both Syrians and Israelis. The two say they submitted the plan to their respective governments, but received no response. Alon Liel says he doubts if further progress can be made unless Syria scales back its ties with Iran, but if Syria does that, peace talks could be revived.

"Nobody can speak on an exact timetable, but the feeling is that we were very close twice already on the official bilateral level," he said. "I think we are even closer today with the ideas we created in our channel."

Israel's government had no official comment on today's meeting.

Unofficial talks between Israelis and their Arab neighbors are nothing new. Similar talks between Israelis and Palestinians in the early 1990s led to direct talks resulting in the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord.