Israel confirms secret contacts with Syria


Tel Aviv : Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak confirmed Tuesday that Israel has been holding secret contacts with Syria with a view to resuming peace negotiations.

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Barak confirmed Israel had been exchanging messages with Syria via foreign mediators and said this was done with his knowledge.

“Israel has an interest in removing Syria from the circle of hostility, and every (Israeli) prime minister, from the right or the left, of the past 15 years wanted this,” Barak told Israel Radio.

“All the messages are with my and our knowledge,” Barak said.

He did not comment on Turkey’s reported role as mediator.

Both Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had said separately late last month that Turkey had been mediating between the two enemy states about a possible resumption of peace negotiations. Israel had not yet commented.

Erdogan had been in Damascus late month, reportedly to discuss the issue.

Al-Assad had told a Qatar-based newspaper almost two weeks go that Syria and Israel had been exchanging messages through Erdogan since April 2007.

“Mediation efforts between Damascus and Tel Aviv intensified mainly after the war on Lebanon in summer 2006,” al-Assad told al-Watan in the April 24 interview.

Al-Assad also claimed that Erdogan had told him Israel was ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Israel.

He said the sides were first trying to find “common ground” through the Turkish mediator, but that there would be no secret peace talks with Israel and that if the talks were revived, they would be held in public through Turkey’s mediation.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria broke off in 2000, when Barak, then prime minister on behalf of the centre-left Labour Party, offered to withdraw from most of the strategic plateau, but wanted to keep a buffer strip along the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore, at the foot of the Golan. Syria rejected the offer.

Israeli media have reported that in its messages to Syria, Israel asked Damascus whether in return for peace, it would be willing to distance itself from Iran, Lebanon’s Shia militant Hezbollah movement, and the Palestinian Hamas.