Netanyahu ally says met Syrian officials in U.S.

JERUSALEM Tue Mar 10, 2009 8:42pm EDT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A politician from Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist Likud party said on Tuesday he had met Syrian diplomats in the United States and felt encouraged about peace prospects.

A spokesman for the Syrian embassy in Washington denied that such a meeting took place.

Netanyahu, who was tasked with forming a new government after a February 10 election in Israel, has been publicly cool to outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reviving indirect peace talks with Syria through Turkish mediators.

Ayoob Kara, a Likud lawmaker from the Arab Druze community -- which has branches in Israel, Syria and Lebanon -- said shortly before the ballot he visited Washington on a speaking tour and was introduced to officials from the Syrian embassy.

"I didn't know they would be there. The Americans brought me," he told Reuters. "In previous such circumstances they (Syrians) would have run away from me, but this time they came running to talk to me.

"From our discussions, the nuances of it, it was clear they are very interested in creating a new situation in our ties. I think we could be at the outset of a new beginning."

The spokesman for the Syrian embassy said: "It's absolutely not true. There was no such meeting. Syria's position is that we do not hold any secretive meetings with Israeli officials."

"Syria's position is that we will not meet with Israeli officials until there is a resumption of peace talks."

EARLIER DISAGREEMENT

Past peace efforts have foundered on disagreement over how much of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, should be returned to Syria.

The Olmert government demanded that Syria scale back its ties to Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, all sworn enemies of Israel. Syria has rebuffed that precondition.

Kara would not name his Syrian interlocutors but said he told them that "without flexibility, there cannot be diplomatic process. I meant a change in their positions, the fact they cannot continue supporting terror."

A Netanyahu spokeswoman, Dina Libster, said he had no knowledge of Kara's account. "We passed no message to Syria through Ayoob Kara. Neither does Mr Netanyahu know about any message conveyed by the Syrians," she said.

Asked if he had reported back to Netanyahu on the meeting, Kara declined to answer. He said his American hosts were a private group with links to the Obama administration.

During his previous term as premier, in 1996-1999, Netanyahu pursued indirect contacts with Syria. Libster said these were broken off "the moment the talks turned to the Golan."

"Netanyahu has said countless times that the Golan will remain in Israel's hands," she said.

The United States under President Barack Obama has broached rapprochement with Damascus and many political analysts believe Netanyahu may be pressured to embrace the Syrian track, perhaps as an alternative to the lackluster talks with the Palestinians.

Israel's Haaretz daily reported last month Netanyahu aides were formulating a proposal for an interim non-belligerence pact under which Syria would gain control of Druze villages on the Golan, along with improved ties with Washington.

Kara declined to say if he was aware of such a proposal.

(Editing by Alison Williams and Elizabeth Piper)

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