Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Prime Minister Ehud Barak has declined to comment on press reports saying secret negotiations between Israel and Syria have almost produced a treaty between the two foes. Informed sources say clandestine talks are underway, and that an agreement is indeed close.
The Hebrew daily Ma'ariv reported on Thursday that Israel and Syria have been communicating secretly through American mediators. Official talks collapsed last month over a Syrian demand that Israel commit to giving up the Golan Heights ahead of any agreement.
Israel has now agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, according to Ma'ariv, on the condition that Syria restrains guerrilla organizations in Lebanon from making cross-border attacks after Israel withdraws from the south Lebanon security zone, which it now maintains.
A similar report appeared in the New York Post, which added that in addition to getting the Golan, Syria would also receive $15 billion in U.S. economic aid.
Barak was said to have denied the veracity of the Ma'ariv article, but his office told CNSNews.com that the prime minister neither denied nor confirmed the truth of the reports.
Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Moshe Maoz, told CNSNews.com that although nothing appears to be happening on the surface, secret talks were surely taking place.
"I assume the people are very busy behind the scenes," Maoz said.
Yoram Ettinger, former Israeli minister for congressional affairs in Washington, agreed - and went a step further.
"What has happened is that negotiations have persisted throughout the last few months, notwithstanding the headlines that have their source in administration leaks," Ettinger told CNSNews.com.
Ettinger said that the ups and downs that Israelis and Americans have read about since Barak came to power were only to anesthetize those who would oppose a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
"The crucial issue for Barak is the boundary between Syria and Israel," Maoz said.
Initially, Syria demanded that Israel withdrawal to the 1967 ceasefire lines on the strategic plateau. However, that is not the 1949 international border.
Though the difference is small in terms of territory, the 1949 boundary would leave crucial water sources in Israel's hands. In terms of diplomacy, it would also mean that Syria intends to respect the international rights and borders of Israel.
Israel seized the plateau in the 1967 Six-Day War after being attacked by Syria. During the 19 years of Israel's existence as a state prior to that, Syria had held the territory and regularly shelled Israeli settlements in the Galilee below.
For Israel, the main issue is trading the strategic parity it has enjoyed (being on high ground, within 35 miles of Damascus) for advanced weapons technology, which many military experts agree is not a worthy exchange. Moreover, such a tradeoff would require billions of dollars in financial aid.
"The deal is shaping up," Ettinger said. "What is left is the scope of the U.S. financial contribution, primarily to Israel and to Syria."
He said the U.S. was expected to underwrite the cost of relocating military bases and communities from the Golan, in which some 18,000 Israelis live.
According to Ettinger, the administration also is committing the U.S. to modernizing the Syrian military and revamping the Syrian economy at a cost of billions of dollars.
Other aspects of the agreement probably would include the stationing of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights - either as a clear U.S. deployment or disguised as part of a multi-national force. This would form part of a Washington-Jerusalem defense pact designed to "instill a false sense of security" in Israelis, Ettinger argued.
Last week, the U.S. State Department denied reports that discussions were underway to establish a defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel.
Barak this week sent several top advisors to Washington to meet with State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council officials for talks on improved bilateral relations.