Renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria are likely to begin in Washington before the end of the year, US state department officials said on 14 December. The announcement follows a new initiative by the US administration, led by assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs Robert Pelletreau, to try to kick-start the stalled negotiations.

Pelletreau met Syria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Farouq al-Shara in Beirut on 9 December. Al-Shara said US sponsorship of the talks was a key factor in Syria’s attendance. ‘The new development from this visit is that there is a US desire to sponsor, and to take part in, contacts between the Syrian and Israeli sides,’ he told Damascus radio on 10 December.

However, he dismissed Israel’s offer of secret talks. ‘We believe that secret meetings are an attempt by Israel to dodge the peace process, international legitimacy and the Madrid framework that was agreed on.’

Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomed Syria’s agreement to resume the informal talks, although he indicated that Israel would have preferred the secret track. ‘We would have liked other ways but the fact of the readiness for the exchange of ideas is, in my eyes, positive,’ he said in Jerusalem on 10 December.

However, the visit by Pelletreau to Beirut was accompanied by renewed tensions in south Lebanon between the Islamist group Hezbollah and the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA). Israel has refused to swap 21 Arab prisoners for 250 members of the SLA held by Hezbollah, and has instead suggested that it will respond with a new wave of military strikes in the area.

Tensions remain high in the Palestinian-Israeli track of the peace process, where the issue of Palestinian elections has led the talks to a stalemate. On 12 December, Rabin stated publicly for the first time that Israel wanted to hold elections before redeploying forces on the West Bank, overturning the timetable laid down in the Declaration of Principles. The comments were made after a ceremony in Oslo on 10 December when the Israeli prime minister, Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Palestinians have rejected the proposal. ‘No one can accept to carry on an election in the presence of the occupying power,’ Arafat said on 12 December.