US envoy Dennis Ross met Syrian and Israeli leaders on 20 and 21 September to explore proposals for peace talks on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. The discussions came as an Israeli minister suggested that secret contacts between Syria and Israel may already be taking place.

Ross, accompanied by President Clinton’s national security adviser for the Middle East Martin Indyk, said after six hours of talks with Syria’s President Asad that he found ‘a lot of seriousness for the achievement of peace’. He told Asad that US Secretary of State Warren Christopher will visit the region in the first half of October to follow up the US peace efforts. Ross met senior Israeli officials in Tel Aviv the following day.

Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on 19 September that he believed there were secret contacts between Israel and Syria ‘to prepare the talks between the two delegations on substance’. He denied reports that he had confirmed such contacts had occurred, but added, ‘I can’t give details’. In Damascus, a Syrian official said that there had been no secret talks.

Accelerating moves towards Syrian-Israeli peace talks have prompted a growing protest movement among Israelis opposed to the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, the main Syrian condition for a peace agreement. About a dozen protestors, most of them Golan settlers, entered the second week of a hunger strike in late September to stir opposition to withdrawal from the heights. Thousands of Israelis, including cabinet ministers and members of the ruling Labour Party, have visited the strikers in their hillside camp.