JERUSALEM - Working with the knowledge of their governments, private Israeli and Syrian negotiators spent two years crafting a tentative treaty aimed at resolving the decades-long conflict between the Middle East neighbors, according to a key player and Israeli government officials who are familiar with the talks.

The talks, which the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed yesterday, collapsed last summer during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon. But the negotiators succeeded in crafting a rough proposal that could lay the foundation for official negotiations, people who are familiar with the project said.

Among the ideas: Israel would return the Golan Heights to Syria on the condition that Syria create a non-militarized park and grant Israelis unfettered access to the area. In return, Haaretz said, Syria would open diplomatic relations with Israel and sever support for the anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Syrian and Israeli officials distanced themselves from the negotiations yesterday, but an Israeli government official told McClatchy Newspapers that the Foreign Ministry had been kept apprised of the talks though not of their details.

A State Department official in Washington who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the subject said the White House had known about the talks but did not think that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had authorized them.

Such private initiatives have helped lay the groundwork for official talks in the past. During the 1980s, Mahmoud Abbas, who is now the president of the Palestinian Authority, met secretly with Israeli academics in talks that paved the way for the historic 1993 Oslo Accords, which recognized a Palestinian right to self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The report of the Israel-Syria talks comes as pressure is growing for the United States to rejuvenate stagnant Middle East peace negotiations.

Syria has offered repeatedly to begin peace talks with Israel, but Israel and the United States have rebuffed the offers and suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not serious.

The issue has divided Israelis. Olmert is among those who have rejected Syria's entreaties by saying that Assad must first demonstrate that he is serious about peace by cutting his ties to anti-Israeli extremists.

Yesterday, Olmert called the plan "a private initiative" and derided the Syrian attorney involved in the talks as "an eccentric from the U.S., someone not serious or dignified."

Other Israeli leaders and academics have pushed Olmert to see what Assad has to offer.

Talks between Syria and Israel have gone nowhere since 2000, when the two sides came tantalizingly close to a peace treaty before it crumbled.

The private initiative began two years ago when the Turkish ambassador to Israel approached Alon Liel, a former director-general in Israel's Foreign Ministry, on behalf of Assad, according to Haaretz.

Liel eventually sought out Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian businessman based in the United States who has close ties to Assad, the paper reported.

For the next two years, Liel said in an interview, the two worked on a deal with the knowledge of officials in Jerusalem and Damascus.

While Olmert said he knew nothing of the talks, an Israeli official said that Liel had kept the Foreign Ministry informed on the negotiations, though not about the details.

"We knew about the contacts. But no one gave him a mandate to negotiate," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There's no official sanction behind it."

On Other Fronts

Israeli authorities said they were opening a criminal investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's role in the sale

of one of Israel's largest banks. Officials said the inquiry would look into the government's 2005 sale

of a controlling interest in Bank Leumi, one of the country's largest financial institutions. The state comptroller, a government watchdog, has alleged that Olmert favored business associates during the sale. He was finance minister at the time. Olmert has denied any wrongdoing in the case.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli army commander under fire for failures in last summer's war in Lebanon, has resigned, the Defense Ministry said today. Halutz has been under pressure to step down since the end of the 34-day war, which failed in its goals of defeating the anti-Israel extremist group Hezbollah and bringing home two captured soldiers. Army Radio reported that Halutz sent his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying that he

was taking responsibility for the outcome of the war. "For me the concept of responsibility is everything," Halutz wrote, according to Army Radio. - Associated Press

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