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Israeli Negotiator Meets Syrian

February 4, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ With Israeli-Syrian peace talks frozen, a senior Israeli negotiator has held secret talks with a Syrian official, his spokesman said today.

The talks took place last weekend in Geneva, said Amit Zimmer, a spokesman for Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

The Yediot Ahronot daily said Lipkin-Shahak, a former army chief, won assurances in the Geneva meeting that Syrian President Hafez Assad wants to resume negotiations. It did not give a source for the report.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has made a resumption of talks with Syria a top priority. Lipkin-Shahak is Barak’s main conduit for back-channel contacts with Syria.

Peace talks resumed in December after a break of nearly four years. Following two rounds of negotiations, Syria called a time-out.

Syria demands that Israel pledge up front to return all of the strategic Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war. Barak has indicated that he would trade most or all of the highlands for full peace with Syria, but rejects the Syrian insistence that it be a condition for a resumption of the talks.

Talks with Syria are tied to one of Barak’s main promises _ ending Israel’s occupation of a strip of territory in southern Lebanon, where Israeli soldiers patrol to keep Hezbollah guerrillas away from the border.

Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon, and Barak has pledged to withdraw his forces with an agreement, implying an understanding with Syria. Israel maintains that Syria can restrain Hezbollah, and that Lebanon could not come to an agreement without Syrian approval.

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