Soliman says secret negotiations are needed, but previously Syria said it only wanted open talks. Be all that as it may, isn't it worth it to find out if peace is possible?
Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Soliman tells reporters after appearing before Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, 'I challenged Israeli government to answer President Assad's call for peace'; deal could be reached within six months, he says
Lilach Shoval and AP Published: 04.12.07, 16:55 / Israel News
If Israel attacks, Damascus will defend itself with all its might, but Syria will not start the war, said Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Soliman at a press conference following an unprecedented appearance before an Israeli parliamentary panel in Jerusalem on Thursday.
During his meeting with Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee members, Soliman made an impassioned appeal for the two countries to restart peace talks, saying a deal could be wrapped up within six months.
The businessman said he did not officially represent the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but asserted he had good contacts with high-level officials in Damascus.
Earlier this year, it emerged that Soliman held eight rounds of secret, unofficial talks with former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Liel, with the knowledge of leaders in the two countries.
"Syria right now is ready to speak peace. I challenged the Israeli government to answer President Bashar's call for peace and sit down together," Soliman told reporters, "I think it can happen in six months."
Since news of the unofficial talks first broke in January, Israeli officials have been interested in hearing what Soliman had to say,
and the panel's session, scheduled to last an hour, went on for 2 1/2 hours.
In the course of their talks, Soliman and Liel drew up a tentative peace proposal to end one of the Middle East's most bitter conflicts. The plan called for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights it seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, and for Syria to end its backing of armed extremists, like Hizbullah guerrillas who warred with Israel last summer.
Liel, who also took part in the press conference, said, "We are enemies, and each country is holding its own cards. The Syrians are inflexible with regards to the Golan Heights; we tried to find a formula that would satisfy both sides."
'We can use his help'
Soliman and Liel approached their respective governments about reopening formal peace negotiations, broken off in 2000, but neither country responded, committee members cited Soliman as saying.
"They suggested that there be officials (in the talks), and there wasn't any response from either side," Lawmaker Colette Avital said.
Soliman was invited to address the lawmakers so they could assess his claims to ties with top figures in the Damascus regime. Israel, which has acknowledged his talks with Liel but distanced itself from them, has questioned the quality of Soliman's contacts.
In his testimony before the parliament panel, Soliman did not identify his contacts in Syria, lawmakers said. Still, committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi said he received the impression that Soliman has "relayed messages more than once between Israel and Syria over the years, and this is evidence of his stature.
"We can use his help because he has contacts with the Syrian leadership in order to spell out our demands, and not just hear what he has to say," Hanegbi added.
Soliman and Liel last met in late July, during the Israel-Lebanon war.
Assad said repeatedly after the war that he was interested in restarting negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has insisted that Assad end his support for Palestinian militant groups and scale back his ties with Iran. His office had no comment on Soliman's appearance before the parliamentary committee.
Israel has used informal contacts in the past. The talks that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians began as meetings between academics and unofficial representatives of the two sides.
Syrian guest to Knesset says secret negotiations needed
Ibrahim Soliman, a Syrian representative in previous, informal talks between Israel and Syria, briefs Knesset committee with Israeli counterpart
Amnon Meranda Published: 04.12.07, 14:47 / Israel News
Israel and Syria should hold secret negotiations in order to reach a peace agreement, Ibrahim (Abe) Soliman told the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday.
Soliman, an American citizen of Syrian descent, came to Israel Tuesday, to hold informal talks, via a non-governmental movement for peace between the two nations. He briefed the Knesset committee along with former Israel Foreign Ministry director-general Dr Alon Liel.
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Soliman, who had been involved in informal Israeli-Syrian talks in the past, thanked the committee for the opportunity to brief them. "I didn't envision in my wildest dreams that I'd be talking to important decision makers among the Jewish people. Syria and Israel missed many opportunities to make peace in the past," he said.
Soliman added that he had participated, of his own accord, in informal talks with Israel, although he did report the proceedings to the Syrian leadership in Damascus.
"I believe that only secret negotiations between Israel and Syria, far away from the eyes of the media, will lead to peace," he said.
Upon leaving the briefing, Soliman said, "I'm very glad I came. I hope that both sides will begin to meet and we, as a private channel, will disappear. My presence here makes everything possible."
Knesset members respond
Knesset Member Yisrael Katz (Likud) said that he'd asked Soliman to tell Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel will not withdraw from the Golan Heights under any circumstances.
"In the past, I got 61 Knesset members to sign a petition against withdrawal from the Golan and there is a clear majority for this in the Knesset. It's important for Assad to know this," he told reporters following the briefing.
Katz also asked Soliman to tell Assad that, in the event that Syria attacked Israel, "any subsequent territory conquered by Israel, would remain in Israeli hands."
In contrast, MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), who had initiated the Knesset briefing, said, "In a peace agreement, Syria would agree to stop supporting terror against us and cut ties with Hizbullah, and would demand that we return to 1967 borders in the Golan Heights."
She said the briefing "was a huge step, especially because it returns the Syrian option to public discourse. It's important that the Knesset committee hear of the informal understandings between Syria and Dr Alon Liel.
"It's important that Israel begin formal talks with Syria. It's a clear Israel interest to begin negotiations with Damascus and, by doing so, remove it from the Axis of Evil and isolate it from Iran," Gal-On continued.
Wednesday, Soliman visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as part of his visit to Israel. "It's hard to think of so many people being murdered in such a short time I pray for a peace that will help prevent such atrocities," he said.
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