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Israel officials skeptical of Assad offer

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An Israeli cowboy on Kibbutz Merom Golan herds cattle near the Syrian border. (BRIAN HENDLER)

An Israeli cowboy on Kibbutz Merom Golan herds cattle near the Syrian border. (BRIAN HENDLER)

JERUSALEM, Sept. 26 (JTA) — Could Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon lead to its withdrawal from the nearby Golan Heights? Syrian President Bashar Assad certainly appears to hope so. In repeated public remarks following the Aug. 14 truce between Israeli forces and the Lebanese militia that his regime champions, Assad has delivered a peace-or-else ultimatum. “I don’t say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace with Israel,” he told the German newspaper Der Spiegel on Sunday. “But my personal opinion, my hopes for peace, could change one day. And if this hope disappears, then war may really be the only solution.” Assad’s frustration appeared to hinge on his demand for a full return of the Golan, which Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel has since annexed the strategic plateau, peppering it with Jewish settlements, thriving wine and produce industries — and even the only ski resort in the Jewish state. Ehud Olmert was quick to snub Assad. The Israeli prime minister noted that Syria, under U.S. scrutiny for its support of Iraqi insurgents, Palestinian terrorists and interference in internal Lebanese affairs, was hardly in a position to make sweeping demands. “What Assad is saying is actually this: ‘I’m going to continue with terrorism, I’m going to continue supporting Palestinian terrorism, I’m going to continue supporting anti-American terrorism in Iraq, I’m going to continue equipping Hezbollah with advanced weaponry, but I am going to wink at Israel and it is going to stand immediately at attention,’ ” Olmert told the religious newspaper Mishpachah in a Yom Kippur interview that was excerpted this week. “So long as I am prime minister, the Golan Heights will remain in our hands, as it is an inseparable part of the State of Israel.” Apart from Israelis’ sentimental attachment to the verdant and breezy Golan getaways, Jerusalem has strategic reasons to be circumspect on any talk of returning the territory. First, the Golan is a bulwark against a police state that faces growing domestic Islamist opposition. A peace deal struck by Assad would be unlikely to survive a power struggle in Damascus. Second, there is the matter of precedent vis-a-vis the Palestinians. A total withdrawal from the Golan would harden the Palestinian Authority’s demand for all of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem in its own peace talks with Israel. That, for the Olmert government as with its predecessors, is a nonstarter. Previous premiers have broached the idea of partially ceding the Golan to Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Barak went as far as to offer Assad’s late father, Hafez, all of the territory except for a few hundred yards leading down to the Sea of Galilee’s shore. He was rebuffed. Still, Olmert’s resolve could be in question, given revelations this week that he has been in secret talks with Saudi Arabia, author of the Arab League proposal for a comprehensive peace with Israel. Yediot Achronot reported that Olmert met with a member of the Saudi royal family to discuss regional diplomacy. Olmert said he did not meet Saudi King Abdullah, but tacitly confirmed that he had held discussions with another senior Saudi representative. Under the Saudi proposal, first issued in 2002 and being overhauled in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, Israel would be recognized by all Arab states in exchange for its full withdrawal from all territory captured in 1967 — the Golan, West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. It would also have to accept an “agreed solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel has consistently rejected the proposal as unfairly imposing preconditions for peace. But some observers believe that Olmert, who was elected in March on the promise of unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank only to see this idea evaporate after Israel’s offensives in Lebanon and Gaza, now needs a new diplomatic vision. Whether or not Olmert is entertaining Assad’s overture, his hands may be tied when it comes to action. Eitan Haber, chief of staff to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said the current political climate may be too difficult for Olmert and Assad to overcome. “With the trauma of disengagement still hovering over us and with our great patron, America, unenthusiastic about Israeli-Syrian reconciliation, there is hardly a place for new peace initiatives that are being drawn up in the capital of terrorism,” he wrote in Yediot.

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