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Israel, Syria had set target to conclude treaty last year

JERUSALEM, Feb. 4 (JTA) — Israel and Syria were shooting for October 1996 as a target date to sign a peace treaty under the previous Israeli government, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres has confirmed. But Peres, who now serves as opposition leader, denied claims in a report by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that Israeli and Syrian negotiators had reached security and diplomatic agreements predicated on an Israeli withdrawal on the Golan Heights. The report came as government leaders expressed optimism about a renewal of the talks with Syria, which were suspended last March. “It’s true that the Syrians proposed concluding the talks in 1996, and it’s true that I agreed to it,” Peres said in an Israel Radio interview from Davos, Switzerland, where he attended this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. But because the main problems were not resolved, including security arrangements and water, he told the Syrians that “we must raise the negotiations and decision-making to the level of president and prime minister.” Peres said Syrian President Hafez Assad had agreed to meet with him, but could not give a date. “I said that if there is no date, then there is no purpose to all this talk,” Peres added. The Labor Party leader denied that Israel had committed to a withdrawal on the Golan. “We never hid anything,” he said, noting that both he and his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, had made clear that “the depth of the withdrawal would be linked to the depth of peace.” “But we never gave the Syrians any geographic parameters,” he added. With the talks with Syria on hold for nearly a year, efforts are now under way to renew the negotiations.
Foreign Minister David Levy was briefed Tuesday by the European Union envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Angel Moratinos, who was in Damascus over the weekend. Moratinos said Assad had expressed an interest in concluding negotiations with Israel in the coming months. Levy said he believed that a formula to allow negotiations to resume could be reached. Syria has demanded that Israel agree to withdraw from the Golan as part of a peace treaty. Israel refuses to commit to any territorial concession as a precondition to talks. Syrian officials have said that when the talks do resume, they must pick up from the point they left off when the previous Labor government was in power. Damascus has long maintained that it received assurances that Israel would withdraw on the Golan. Israel this week called on Syria to quash Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops operating in the southern Lebanon security zone. Syria, which has some 40,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, is considered a main power broker in Beirut. This week, an American official confirmed reports that Hezbollah had been receiving arms from Iran with the knowledge of Syria.