American officials: Cheney kept in loop on Syria talks

By Akiva Eldar

Haaretz

Tevet 28, 5767

Senior American government officials received regular reports of the secret meetings that took place in Europe between a former Israeli official and a Syrian representative, Haaretz has learned.

Senior officials in Washington told Haaretz that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was kept in the picture about these indirect talks between Syria and Israel. Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman, the Syrian representative, also said this at his meetings with former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel, adding that Cheney had made no move to stop him from participating in the talks. Suleiman is a Washington resident.

A document that Dr. Nimrod Novik, a former political advisor to Vice Premier Shimon Peres, disseminated last October to members of the Council for Peace and Security also said that Washington knew about the talks. "While the administration is taking care not to broadcast a U-turn in its approach as long as the president has not given it an explicit green light, the signs of a change in direction are multiplying," Novik wrote. "During the fighting in Lebanon, former senior [U.S.] officials were authorized to speak with Damascus, within a narrow mandate, while Pentagon and State Department officials support a change in the policy toward Hamas and quote the president in this context."

Geoffrey Aronson, of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who helped arrange the secret meetings, also participated last year in meetings organized by Alastair Crooke, the European Union's former security envoy to the territories, with key Hamas and Hezbollah members. These meetings, which took place in Beirut, were also attended by two former senior Central Intelligence Agency officials. Haaretz reported at the time that Cheney also know about the existence of these meetings, and received regular reports from the American participants.

Novik wrote that "during secret talks via a third party a few years ago, the Syrians already demonstrated much more flexibility than they did at Shepherdstown on matters such as the pace of the withdrawal, implementation of normalization and creative solutions ('a peace park') for the area north of [Lake] Kinneret. Then, too, it was Israel that refused direct, official talks."

The Shepherdstown talks were formal Israeli-Syrian negotiations started by Ehud Barak's government.

Meretz-Yahad Chairman Yossi Beilin said in media interviews yesterday that the European mediator in the secret talks was Nicholas Lang, head of the Middle East desk at the Swiss Foreign Ministry. Lang also played a key role in organizing the Israeli-Palestinian meetings at which Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo drafted the Geneva Initiative, their proposal for a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Liel, who was the driving force behind the secret meetings with Suleiman, is one of the people closest to Beilin.

Raviv Drucker, of Channel 10 television, reported last night that Lang met not long ago with Shalom Turjeman, Ehud Olmert's political adviser, and presented him with the draft. According to Drucker, Turjeman told Lang that Israel has no interest in the understandings. Drucker also said that Lang visited Damascus several times during the talks, met with Syrian FM Farouk Shara, and reported that he believed the Syrian leadership genuinely wanted a deal.