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Netanyahu Admits Secret Contacts with Syria over Golan Heights Issue

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The Israeli-Syrian negotiating track has not been as silent as previously believed.

Outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed Sunday that Israel held clandestine, indirect talks with Syria for more than a year during his tenure.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting — the first since his defeat in the May 17 elections — Netanyahu said his administration had held talks with Syria using several intermediaries.

His comments came after the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported last Friday that Israel and Syria were close to signing a peace agreement that would have included a significant Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The two sides came close to establishing disarmament zones on the Golan and replacing Israeli forces there with foreign troops, the paper said. According to the paper, the talks began in late 1997 and mediators included Oman’s foreign minister, the European Union’s Middle East envoy and Ronald Lauder, a Netanyahu confidant who is reported to have traveled to Syria seven or eight times for high-level meetings, including one with President Hafez Assad.

Lauder this week begins a term as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group representing U.S. Jewish groups.

A Cabinet communique issued after Sunday’s meeting said the talks “did not lead to any agreement, since Israel did not consent to Syria’s territorial demands.”

But the talks “constitute an accomplishment since they represent a retreat from the Syrian position that negotiations will not be conducted until Israel first agrees to a comprehensive withdrawal from the Golan Heights,” the communique added.

Assad has long stated that the talks would not resume unless Israel agreed to pick them up from the point where they left off in March 1996, when then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres suspended the negotiations because of Assad’s refusal to condemn a series of terror attacks that Hamas had launched at the time against Israeli targets.

Before the talks’ suspension, Israel had agreed to return most of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria.

But nothing was signed, and after Netanyahu was elected in May 1996 he maintained that he had no legal commitment to live up to an informal agreement.

During Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the informal talks with Syria conducted during his administration had resulted in some tentative security agreements.

Netanyahu added that he would update Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak on the substance of the talks.

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