Officials in Jerusalem and Damascus are denying a media report that Israel and Syria have reached a behind-the-scenes breakthrough in deadlocked negotiations.
The officials were responding to a CNN report, which said that Israel and Syria are negotiating details of an agreement to demilitarize the Golan Heights and exchange ambassadors.
Sources in Jerusalem said the story may have been planted by Syria in an effort to create an optimistic atmosphere in advance of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s visit to the region next week.
The report, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, said the two sides are near agreement on a proposal to establish a 6.2 mile-wide demilitarized zone straddling the border line, with partially demilitarized zones close to two miles on either side.
The report said Syria had also agreed to a staged withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from the golan Heights, and was willing to discuss the exchange of ambassadors.
In addition, it said that early warning devices would be installed on the Golan Heights and staffed by international monitors and that the United States would supply each side with satellite data.
Reacting to the report, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said there had been no direct contacts between the two sides since December, when the chiefs- of-staff of Israel and Syria met in Washington.
He said he did not know of any progress in indirect contacts — a reference to messages sent through the American peace team.
“As far as I know, [the report] was leaked from sources close to the Syrians,” Rabin, who turned 73 on Wednesday, told reporters. “There have been no direct contacts in two months.”
However, U.S. State Department officials said Tuesday that Syria and Israel had resumed negotiations in Washington this week, with meetings between Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem.
Dennis Ross, the State Department’s special Middle East coordinator, participated in the meetings, a State Department official said.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio that the report could be a “trial balloon” being sent by Syria in advance of Christopher’s visit.
“Nothing is happening since the last meetings that took place between the chiefs-of-staff,” Peres said, adding, “We welcome the visit of the secretary. We think it’s timely and positive.”
Peres said Syria has not moved on its demand that Israel commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a prerequisite to making peace.
“The Syrians demand that we shall accept their opening position as their own,” Peres said. “We say no.”
A spokesman from the Syrian Foreign Ministry also denied the report. He said Syria’s position had not changed and that it was demanding equal security arrangements for both sides.