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Syria agrees to visit by Israelis

June 28, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Syria has agreed to an unprecedented visit by a group of Israeli mayors, an Israeli government ministry disclosed today _ a development that coincides with warming ties between the two countries.

News of the planned tour emerged when the Justice Ministry made public a warning letter to the mayors that said they must receive permission from the Interior Ministry to visit an enemy country. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the two countries have technically been at war because they have never signed a peace treaty.

The group of Israeli Jewish and Arab mayors is scheduled to travel to Syria in July, according to a report today in the Israeli daily Maariv.

The visit would be the first official visit to Syria by Israeli Jews. Israeli Arabs have visited Syria since the two countries joined multilateral Mideast peace talks in Madrid in 1991.

Hili Goldstein, the assistant director-general of the Center for Local Government, an umbrella body for Israeli municipalities, refused to comment on the Justice Ministry letter or the visit to Syria.

The visit is being coordinated through a European mediator, Maariv reported.

Israeli-Syrian talks were frozen by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government.

But Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, a moderate, already has made overtures to the Syrians, saying resuming peace talks with them would be a priority for his government. Syrian President Hafez Assad has described Barak as ``trustworthy.″

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