Israel has secret channel open with Syria, Levy says

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JERUSALEM — Israel's Foreign Minister David Levy acknowledged that secret contacts have taken place with the Syrians as part of an American push to try to bring about a resumption of peace talks.

Asked this week in a TV interview whether there was a secret channel, Levy replied, "I confirm. It's true. It's not mediation. It's an American initiative in which there is a concentrated effort with the Syrians to bring about a meeting."

Levy told Israel's Channel 2 that "the fact the Syrians aren't letting up with the Americans is proof that they also want to reach an agreement."

In another interview this week, Levy also indicated that the Israel Defense Force will withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon by next summer — even in the absence of a Syria deal.

Reiterating Prime Minister Ehud Barak's position, Levy said the government would make every effort to reach an agreement with Syria by July. But "if there is no agreement, we will not be held hostage to the stubbornness of others and stay there forever."

A Lebanon pullback will be tricky for Syrian President Hafez Assad. He knows that once Israel leaves Lebanon, questions will mount within the Arab world as to why Syrian forces are still occupying much of Lebanon. The Syrians will become the sole foreign force in Lebanon, and their presence there will become awkward.

However, a broad Israeli-Syrian peace treaty that provides for an agreed-upon Israeli withdrawal would implicitly acknowledge a continued Syrian role in Lebanon.

Levy denied allegations by the Syrians — repeated Saturday by Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Khalil Wahaba — that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had made promises regarding a total withdrawal from the Golan.

"Rabin wanted to know what the Syrian concept of peace was. But any talk of implicit promises is nothing more than an interpretation of Rabin's messages," Levy said.

He stressed that, contrary to a growing impression, Israel is not rushing to forge a deal with Syria.

"I agree with [President Ezer] Weizman on this," said Levy, in reference to the president's statements last week that the government should stop "running after" Assad.

"I understand the president. I have also reached this conclusion," Levy said. "We are not doing any running. We want peace and it is very important, but no running or crawling. Peace is good for us both."

Meanwhile, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari relayed regards from Assad to Weizman.

Ahtisaari held five hours of talks with Assad in Damascus on Sunday. He relayed the regards to Weizman in a meeting the two held Monday night in Jerusalem.

At the height of Syrian-Israeli talks during the Rabin era, Assad conveyed regards to Weizman via then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher. It is not known if this has occurred since.

At a dinner in Ahtisaari's honor, Weizman said in his toast, "I am ready to go to Damascus, even tonight" for the sake of peace.

Regardless of when Israel and Syria start talking directly again, the issue that will come to foreground will be Lake Kinneret.

Syria insists that its forces take up positions on the northeastern banks of the Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee — where they were deployed until the day before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israeli officials rejects this demand. They point out that the international boundary between Syria and Palestine, drawn up by Britain and France in 1923, ran a short but significant distance away from the shoreline. And Barak wants even that boundary redrawn in Israel's favor, perhaps trading land close to the lake with other land farther south.

The difference, negligible perhaps in terms of square mileage, is vitally important in relation to control of the Kinneret, Israel's most important water resource. It is also of extreme importance in relation to Barak's political standing and ability to win support from the Israeli public for a peace accord with Syria.

The prime minister has pledged that any deal negotiated with Damascus will be submitted to a national referendum.

Under international law, a party legally ensconced on the banks of a body of water has rights over some of that water. For Israel to acquiesce to the Syrian demand would mean recognizing Syria's rights to fish in the Kinneret and, more importantly, to pump water from it.

Barak has committed himself to not accepting "the Syrians splashing their feet in the waters of the Kinneret," an explicit statement that he will not be able to break easily.

Certainly he would find it hard to go into a national referendum on Israel's withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights if he could not even show that he had held firm over this last, strategically and symbolically important sliver.

Barak's readiness to withdraw from the Golan, though never publicly pronounced by the premier himself, was confirmed last week by one of his most senior political lieutenants, Deputy Prime Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

His statement made the prime minister's own warning to Assad, delivered from the Knesset podium on Monday, all the more dramatic.

"The door of opportunity in the Middle East is open today," Barak said. "But no one can know for how long it will remain open. The time for decision is at hand."