Mediators Met With Eli Cohen's Family

The parties to the secret back-channel negotiations with Syria met with relatives of Israeli spy Eli Cohen's family and discussed the possibility that Damascus would allow his remains to be repatriated one peace talks are renewed. One of the meetings was sponsored by the Foreign Ministry. Nadia Cohen, widow of the executed spy, told Haaretz yesterday that before taking ill, former prime minister Ariel Sharon promised she would soon bring her husband to Israel for burial. Cohen supported any effort to end the conflict with Syria and hopes her husband's reinterment will be one of the first confidence-building steps between the two states.

Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, a Likud MK, confirmed last week that he knew of the secret talks while serving at the ministry.

Meretz chair Yossi Beilin said after Haaretz first revealed the initiative that the European who mediated between the Israelis and Damascus was the head of the Middle East desk in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Nicholas Lang. Lang had played a key role in the talks between Israelis and Palestinians that led to Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo's Geneva Initiative. Earlier, Lang had served as Swiss general consul in Jerusalem.

Over the weekend, Lang visited Jerusalem, later traveling to Damascus to meet senior government officials, including Vice President Farouk Shara and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

Swiss Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey confirmed yesterday that Switzerland acted as a mediator in the informal talks between Israeli and Syrian negotiators. "Switzerland was the broker in the talks reported by the press," Calmy-Rey told a press conference in Geneva. She also said that the mediator himself is currently in Syria.

Calmy-Rey said she will meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In her first press conference as president, Calmy-Rey declined to detail the situation of the talks or their likely results, and rejected charges that Switzerland favors the Palestinians, citing its neutral policy during the recent conflict in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, yesterday accused Hezbollah of waging the summer war for Syria and Iran in order to improve the Syrian bargaining position. He said the Lebanese paid the price for talks that Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Suleiman had conducted with Israelis.

"Does that not shame Hezbollah to be used at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese?" Jumblatt asked. Jumblatt is considered a moderate in the Middle East regarding relations with Israel and an opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

Assaf Uni, Yoav Stern and news agencies contributed to this report.