Mediator Says Peace With Syria Can Be Reached 6 Months After Talks Begin

If Israel and Syria begin negotiations, they can reach agreement within six months and allow Damascus to disengage from Hezbollah and join the war on terrorism, Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman said yesterday.

The American-Syrian businessman who has represented Syria in informal talks with Alon Liel, his Israeli counterpart, appeared yesterday before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee - an exceptionally rare event for a foreigner.

During the meeting Suleiman said that "accepting the Israeli-Syrian document of understandings that was formulated will allow Syria to assist in the global struggle against terrorism, cut its ties with Hezbollah and assist the American struggle in Iraq."

Suleiman, who resides in Washington, has close ties with the Syrian leadership, and called on Israel to hold official talks with Syria.

At a press conference held after the meeting in the Knesset, Suleiman said that "if the governments of Syria and Israel negotiate they will reach a peace deal in six months."

Suleiman stressed that he had no doubt of Bashar Assad's wish for peace and said that in previous talks the two sides had agreed on 80 percent of the issues.

The last time Israel and Syria held peace talks was in 2000, under the auspices of the Clinton administration.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement yesterday noting that "the stance of the government of Israel remains unchanged - Syria is not interested in peace and is only pretending. Syria continues to be interested in granting asylum to 11 terrorist organizations in Damascus and encourages terrorism against Israel everywhere possible."

Discussing his talks with Liel, Suleiman said that "as a private channel [of negotiations] we will disappear," but stressed that "nothing is impossible in this world. My presence here will make things possible."

After his meeting in the Knesset, Suleiman expressed his happiness at being here.

"In my wildest dreams I did not dream that I would speak with important decision-makers of the Jewish people. Peace is possible and desirable. Syria and Israel have missed many opportunities in the past," Suleiman said.

"Since 1948 Israeli leaders said that they are willing to talk about peace at any time and in any place. Syria now announced that it is ready to talk about peace. I challenge the government of Israel to respond to this call," Suleiman said.

The U.S.-Syrian mediator said Damascus is careful to abide by the cease-fire agreement with Israel and would not begin a war with Israel.

"Not a single bullet was fired since 1974, when Syria signed a cease-fire accord."

Suleiman also asked to meet with 12 Syrians imprisoned in Israel. One is a Syrian citizen who crossed the border and was arrested in April 2005, and 11 others are Druze residents of the Golan Heights, who are also Syrian citizens, some of whom are in jail for felonies.

Liel, who is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, and Suleiman said that a meeting with a senior ministry official was canceled at the last minute.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the decision to cancel the meeting was made by Director General Aharon Abramovitch.

"There was a wish to avoid giving the misleading impression that official sources were negotiating with Suleiman," the senior official said. "It was decided that the damage would have been greater than the benefits. If Suleiman is not an official representative, then why meet with him? If he is an official representative and Syria wants negotiations, there are other words for saying that."