JERUSALEM -- Israel had secret contacts with Syria several months ago -- well before recent Syrian overtures -- but they broke down after word of the meetings leaked out, Israel's foreign minister said Sunday. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was ready to open negotiations if Syria "stops helping terror."
The secret meetings appeared part of an effort to restart peace talks between Israel and one of its most intractable enemies. Earlier talks broke down in 2000.
Syrian President Bashar Assad called last month for a resumption of official talks, but Israel leaders are split over whether to take up his offer.
Sharon said Sunday that Israel would readily restart negotiations with Syria, once Syria stopped aiding and harboring terrorist groups that continue to attack Israel.
The main Palestinian militant groups, as well as the Lebanese group Hezbollah, all operate on Syrian territory.
"Israel is ready and willing to negotiate once Syria, of course, stops helping terror," he told a news conference.
Meanwhile, more than 80,000 Jewish settlers and their supporters demonstrated against Sharon's recent statements that Israel would unilaterally remove some settlements from the West Bank and Gaza if no peace deal with the Palestinians is reached soon.
"The uprooting of settlements tears the nation," read one protester's sign. "Sharon, resign -- we don't want you any more," read another.
While peace efforts with the Palestinians remain stalled, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and some other officials have been publicly pushing the government to accept Syria's offer to restart talks.
Shalom said Sunday that Israel had secret meetings seven or eight months ago with people "very close" to Assad.
"Unfortunately, after two meetings that the Israeli partners had with their Syrian colleagues, it leaked out. And while it was exposed, of course the Syrians didn't continue to negotiate through this track," he said.
In Damascus, an official with the information ministry denied there had been any secret contacts. Syria's policy remains linked to international initiatives that call on Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories and blamed Israel for the current stalemate.
Mahdi Dakhlalah, editor-in-chief of the Al-Baath newspaper of the ruling Baath party said Syria has repeatedly insisted it would not "do anything under the table. Rather, it puts all its papers on the table."
"There is no need for Syria to hold secret contacts at all," he added.
Syria and Israel were close to a peace agreement in 2000, with Israel offering to return nearly all of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast war. But the two sides were unable to finalize the deal.
Back channel talks with other unidentified Arab countries are continuing, Shalom added. His comments followed reports that Israel had held secret meetings with Libya.
"I don't see how we can continue to deal or to contact or to negotiate with our Arab neighbors while they are not sure that these contacts won't remain in secret," Shalom said.
Peace efforts with the Palestinians remain stalled after 39 months of violence and both sides' refusal to implement their obligations under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Sharon said last month he would uproot some settlements and impose a boundary on the Palestinians if no peace deal is reached in the next few months. Last week he told activists from his Likud Party that under any peace deal, some settlements would have to be moved.
Thousands of settlers and their supporters gathered in Tel Aviv to protest Sharon's remarks.
Though police estimated that 120,000 people were at the rally, many appeared to be teenagers, too young to vote.
"I came to voice my opposition to Sharon's policies," said 18-year-old Matan Bahat, from the Israeli city of Holon. "I am against evacuating settlements, which would be a reward for terror."
Also Sunday, violence continued in the West Bank.
A 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed in a confrontation with the Israeli army in a West Bank village. Palestinian witnesses said soldiers fired at Palestinian stone throwers, while the military said the teen was about to throw a firebomb when he was shot.
A Palestinian man was killed when a bomb he was carrying exploded prematurely. The Israeli military said the bomber, identified by relatives as Iyad al-Masri, 19, from the West Bank city of Nablus, apparently had been en route to Israel. His brother and a cousin were killed by the Israeli army in clashes last week.
In Gaza, the spiritual leader of Hamas indicated Sunday that the violent Islamic group spurned truce overtures from the United States. Asked by Associated Press Television News about details of the U.S. initiative, Yassin replied, "We refused to talk about any truce with any party that tried to contact us." U.S. officials have denied any contact with Hamas, which is on the U.S. terrorist list.
Also, Yassin repeated his formula for accepting a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem without recognizing Israel. This would be a "stage" in the Palestinian struggle for all the territory, he said, noting that he first made the proposal in 1997. The Hamas ideology does not recognize a Jewish state in the Middle East.