Israeli, Syrian officials dismiss reported peace proposal

RAMALLAH —  Both Israeli and Syrian officials yesterday denied reports in the Israeli media that the two countries had reached the outlines of a peace agreement in secret talks over the past two years.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said no Israeli government official was involved and called it “a private initiative on the part of an individual who spoke with himself. From what I read, his interlocutor was an eccentric from the US, someone not serious or dignified”.

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman rejected the report as “completely false”.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had reported that an Israeli ex-diplomat, a European go-between and a Syrian American had brokered an agreement with the knowledge of the Sharon government and in the presence of senior Syrian officials.

The “agreement” would see Israel withdraw to pre-June 4, 1967 lines, gradually evacuate settlements on the Golan Heights, which would be demilitarised, but retain control over the waters of the Sea of Galilee, while a joint buffer zone would ensure access for both Israelis and Syrians.

In remarks quoted by Israel Radio, Alon Liel, the former diplomat named in the Haaretz report, said he “did not represent anyone” in official Israeli circles when he participated in the discussions.

With Washington exerting pressure on Damascus and US officials unhappy about persistent suggestions in Israel that negotiations between Israel and Syria should restart sooner rather than later, Israeli officials were keen to play down the report.

An unnamed senior Cabinet minister was quoted Tuesday as saying that there were no contacts between the two nations, and that the story was “a bluff”.

“We don’t know about this, and if this had happened, we would have known about it,” Israel Radio quoted the minister as saying. “This is not serious. It’s possible that there were contacts on the level of academics, it’s possible that there were reports to officials on a low level. But it did not reach higher than that.”

Olmert, meanwhile, is to face criminal prosecution over his role in the privatisation of one of Israel’s largest banks, Bank Leumi. State Prosecutor Eran Sheander yesterday  instructed the Israeli police to investigate Olmert over allegations that, in his role as finance minister in the previous government, he tried to steer the sale in the direction of Australian real estate mogul Frank Loewy.

With the news, the two top politicians in Israel are now facing criminal investigations. Israeli President Moshe Katsav is still awaiting indictment on four counts of rape, illegal wiretapping and obstruction of justice.


Gaza tunnels


Elsewhere, Hamas officials have denied that tunnels discovered in the Gaza Strip were dug to target senior Fateh leaders, as was suggested Sunday by some Fateh leaders in Gaza.

Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’ Izzeddine Al Qassam Brigades, told Reuters the tunnels, discovered in recent days by Fateh-led security forces, were built to confront the “Zionist enemy”. He denied any tunnels had been dug underneath the homes of Fateh leaders, describing the accusation as “politically motivated”.

At least 30 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since President Mahmoud Abbas called for fresh elections last month.

A poll released yesterday found that should such elections be held now, Fateh would defeat the governing Hamas group.

The poll, conducted by the Ramallah-based independent Near East Consulting, also showed Fateh winning 40 per cent of a parliamentary vote and Hamas 23 per cent. Remaining voters said they would back other factions or refrain from casting ballots.

If presidential election was held now, Abbas would win 38 per cent of the vote compared with 18 per cent for Hamas’ Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, according to the poll.

Hamas leaders have rejected Abbas’ call for early elections, calling it a coup attempt.

The poll also found that 51 per cent of the Palestinians believe Hamas must change its position regarding Israel while 39 per cent say it should not. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents said they favoured a peace settlement with Israel, with 26 per cent saying they objected to such an agreement.

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