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A peace agreement between Israel and Syria could be reached within 35 minutes, former U.S. president Bill Clinton told the Lebanon-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in an interview published Sunday.

Clinton said Israel and Syria were very close to reaching an agreement in 1998, adding that an accord could be reached assuming Iran does not play a role in the issue.

The former U.S. president also said that, in his opinion, the 1995 assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin led to the failure of the peace process.

"[Former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat really trusted Rabin, and the assassination of Rabin killed the peace process," he said.

Clinton told the newspaper that secret negotiations, like those conducted in Oslo that led to the 1993 Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, are the only way through which to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.

Russian official: Syria-Israel tensions might escalate into warRussian National Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov warned during a visit to Israel last week that the tense cease-fire between Jerusalem and Damascus might escalate into war if the two parties mutually miscalculate their strength.

Ivanov raised the issue during his visit to Israel as part of a delegation of Russian officials here to engage in strategic discussions with Israeli officials.

Israeli National Security Council Head Ilan Mizrahi responded by saying that the fact that Russia was supplying Syria with modern weapons and missiles might encourage it to miscalculate its strength. Mizrahi added that delivering weapons to Syria would also undermine regional stability.

Ivanov replied that Russia was supplying both Iran and Syria with defensive weapon systems only. He went on to tell the Israeli delegation that Syrian President Bashar Assad was genuinely interested in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

"As I told you in November, you will find a partner in Assad," he said, adding that Russia supported the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

As for the Iranian nuclear program, Ivanov said Russia would not allow the Islamic republic to arm itself with nuclear weapons. "A nuclear Iran would threaten Russia, too," he said.

Ivanov reiterated this statement during his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The danger attached to the Iranian nuclear program must not be downplayed, "but it should not be exaggerated either," Ivanov said.

He added that diplomatic talks to resolve the crisis revolving the Iranian nuclear effort have not been exhausted, and that there was "still much to be done in that respect." Ivanov also relayed Russia's apprehensions regarding a possible joint American-Israeli military strike against Iran.

Several members of the Israeli delegation disagreed with the assessments of their Russian counterparts regarding the issue.

Regarding Moscow's connection with Hamas, Ivanov said Russia's balanced stance on the Middle East enabled it to serve as an acceptable mediator for all parties. Ivanov added that Russia was interested in assisting the government of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

The delegation included high-ranking officers. In addition to Ivanov and other Russian Security Council members, the deputy chief of the Russian intelligence service and his counterpart in the Russian internal security intelligence organization were there. In addition, it included the Russian foreign ministry's Middle East department head and a defense ministry department head. The Russian delegation communicated with the Israeli hosts through two interpreters from Russia who spoke fluent Hebrew.

The Russian delegation met with representatives of the Mossad, the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps and other defense establishment officials.

Among the other officials present were delegates from the defense and foreign ministries and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. The discussions between the Israeli and Russian delegations lasted two days. The parties have agreed to hold another session in the future, scheduled to take place in Moscow.

On Saturday, Syria distanced itself Saturday from comments by a Syrian-American businessman who recently told Knesset members that President Bashar Assad was ready to make peace with Israel.

Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told state television that the comments of the businessman, Ibrahim Suleiman, express his personal point of view, and Syria has nothing to do with this visit or statements.

In an unprecedented appearance before an Israeli parliamentary panel on Thursday, Suleiman said he had high-level contacts with officials in Damascus.

Although he said he did not speak for the Syrian government, he predicted that Israel and Syria could strike a peace deal within six months if they were to resume talks.

"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," Suleiman said.

Bilal said Syria was keen to reach a peace settlement, but in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions and the Arab peace initiative - which call for Israel to withdraw completely from territory occupied in the 1967 and 1973 wars.