updated 4/12/2007 12:12:44 PM ET 2007-04-12T16:12:44

A Syrian-American businessman making an extraordinary appearance before an Israeli parliamentary panel said Syria and Israel ignored his efforts to turn informal talks into official negotiations on ending their conflict, Israeli lawmakers said Thursday.

Ibrahim Suleiman was the first Syrian to address lawmakers in Israel, appearing before parliament’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The panel invited him to speak so it could evaluate his claims to ties with top figures in the Damascus regime.

Earlier this year, it emerged that Suleiman held eight rounds of secret, unofficial talks with a former director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel, with the knowledge of their respective leaders. Both men have said they concluded from their meetings that Syria was sincere about resuming peace talks with Israel.

They drew up a tentative peace proposal to end one of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts, which called for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a halt to Syrian support for armed extremists.

No response from either side
In the course of the talks, Suleiman and Liel approached their respective governments about reopening formal peace negotiations, broken off in 2000, but neither country responded, committee members said Suleiman told them.

“They suggested that there be officials (in the talks), and there wasn’t any response from either side,” lawmaker Colette Avital said.

In his testimony before the parliament panel, Suleiman did not identify his contacts in Syria, lawmakers said.

Nissim Zeev, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Suleiman told lawmakers the Syrian government knew of the talks, but didn’t give them an official mandate.

“They weren’t really close to finalizing anything, because the governments had not gotten involved,” Zeev said.

Still, committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi said he received the impression that Suleiman has “relayed messages more than once between Israel and Syria over the years, and this is evidence of his stature.

“We can use his help because he has contacts with the Syrian leadership in order to spell out our demands, and not just hear what he has to say,” Hanegbi added.

Last meeting in July
Suleiman and Liel last met in late July, during the Israel-Lebanon war.

Israel, which has acknowledged his talks with Liel but distanced itself from them, has questioned the quality of his contacts.

After the committee session, Suleiman said he hoped his efforts weren’t in vain.

“I am hoping that the officials in Israel and the officials in Syria will start meeting with one another and that we, as a private channel, should disappear now,” he said. “My presence here will make everything useful.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad said repeatedly after Israel’s summer war in Lebanon, a former Syrian proxy, that he was interested in restarting negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has insisted that Assad end his support for Palestinian militant groups and scale back his ties with Iran first.

Israel has used informal contacts in the past. The talks that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians began as meetings between academics and unofficial representatives of the two sides.

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