YASSER ARAFAT, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, confirmed yesterday that high-ranking PLO and Israeli officials had met on two occasions.
"There were two meetings last month in Washington during the [Middle East peace negotiations] rounds, and they were unsuccessful," Mr. Arafat told the Reuters news agency.
Arafat's adviser Nabil Shaath said in Cairo earlier that there had been contacts with Israel but declined to say where or when or who had been involved. It was the first time a senior PLO official has confirmed direct talks between the organization and the Israeli government.
But in Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's spokesman, Gad Ben-Ari, denied there had been any meetings with the PLO. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, however, avoided the issue, saying: "I cannot respond to every statement from anyone in the PLO or somewhere else."
Israel has been negotiating peace with Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip since October 1991. But it has always refused to talk to the PLO on the grounds that it is a terrorist movement dedicated to destroying the Jewish state.
The Rabin government repealed a law against contacts with the PLO this year but has rejected the PLO as a partner to Middle East peace efforts.
Israeli-Palestinian talks are stalled by differences over the jurisdiction to be given a Palestinian self-governing body and control over East Jerusalem, which both sides claim. US Enovy Visit Syria
United States Middle East peace coordinator Dennis Ross met yesterday with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to discuss ways of restarting the stalled Arab-Israeli negotiations. But the talks were dominated by clashes in south Lebanon, where guerrilla attacks on Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone" have killed five Israeli soldiers and drawn threats of retaliation.
Reports from Jerusalem indicated Mr. Ross warned Syria that Israel could take strong steps if the attacks continued. Israel has accused Syria of failing to rein in the Palestinian and Shiite Muslim Lebanese attackers.
Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, has 40,000 troops in the country as a peacekeeping force. While Syria and Lebanon have curbed militia activity in much of Lebanon, they have not blocked guerrilla operations against the security zone on the grounds that it is a legitimate resistance to occupation.
After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it carved out the 440-square-mile zone in 1985 to protect its northern border.
The talks between Ross and President Assad took place at Assad's summer resort in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia. Ross was to leave yesterday for talks in Jordan. He then was to return to Israel, where he began his peace shuttle last week.
The English-language Syria Times said there would be no peace until Israel ended its occupation of Arab territories.
"Putting an end to Israel's occupation is an indispensable condition for establishing peace and security in the region," the newspaper said. "Unfortunately, Israel wants its own security to be at the expense of the Arabs."