Leak-prone Israeli pols torpedo deals with Arab neighbors

Special to World
Monday, January 12, 2004

JERUSALEM Israeli efforts to forge relations with its Arab neighbors keep running into a significant obstacle.

Israeli politicians can't keep a secret.

Over the last week, Israeli initiatives with Libya and Syria fell apart after they were reported in the Israeli media. Officials said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has pressed for lie detector tests to be given to senior members of his ministry.

On Sunday, Shalom acknowledged that Israel and Syria held secret contacts in late 2003. After two meetings, the effort was torpedoed by leaks in the media.

Officials said leaks from Israel's Cabinet and Knesset have become so frequent that secret contacts with Arab states are often disclosed in the media. The result has damaged the prospect that other Arab states would agree to a dialogue with the Jewish state.

Even the United States, regarded as Jerusalem's closest ally, has become cautious in what it tells Israel, officials said.

They said the Bush administration refused to relay details of the joint British-U.S. inspections of Libyan missile and nuclear facilities in late 2003 out of concern that they would appear in the Israeli media.

"Unfortunately, after two meetings that the Israeli partners had with their Syrian colleagues, it leaked out," Shalom said. "And while it was exposed, of course the Syrians didn't continue to negotiate through this track. I don't see how we can continue to deal or to contact or to negotiate with our Arab neighbors while they are not sure that these contacts won't remain in secret."

Shalom said Israel has been in "contacts and negotiations" with other Arab countries. He said these "contacts are still unknown and I hope won't be discovered in the near future."

Foreign Ministry sources said the leaks have come from the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The sources said Sharon staffers have dismissed the importance of Israeli contacts with such countries as Libya and Syria as an effort by those Arab countries to gain support from Washington.

"[Syrian President Bashar] Assad wants us to give him a life raft," Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committe, said. "We must not allow ourselves to play into the hands of our enemies who don't seek real peace, rather a way to avoid U.S. pressure."

On Monday, Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited Assad to visit Jerusalem for peace talks. Katsav said his invitation to Assad, who the Israeli president said transferred weapons from Iran to Hizbullah under the guise of humanitarian aid, did not contain any conditions.

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