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Syria cool to peace overtures

Syrian President Bashar Assad. (GPO/BP Images)

Syrian President Bashar Assad. (GPO/BP Images)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in recent weeks has gone further than any Israeli leader in reaching out to Syria, but Damascus seems in no hurry to respond.Olmert confirmed he sent secret messages to President Bashar Assad telling the Syrians that Israel was ready to pay the price for peace – return of the strategic Golan Heights captured in 1967. And in a Cabinet meeting, Olmert formally announced his acceptance of the 2002 Arab League peace plan as a basis for land-for-peace negotiations with the Arab world as a whole.The Syrian response has been cool.”The Golan is Syrian and there is no need for secret offers,” a Syrian government spokesman declared.Although Syria’s deputy foreign minister declared Tuesday that Damascus was ready to start peace talks without  preconditions, Israeli officials dismissed it as empty sloganeering that fails to address the concerns raised by Olmert in his messages to Assad.Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, a Syrian dissident came to Jerusalem to warn thegovernment against making peace with the Assad regime.Farid Ghadry, the Washington-based leader of the small Syrian Reform Party, said Israel would never be able to get a stable peace from a dictatorship and should wait until democratic forces took over.Olmert sent his secret messages to Assad through high-level German and Turkish officials, making it clear that Israel would be ready to give back the Golan. But the prime minister wanted to know what his nation would get in return. Specifically, would Syria be ready to break with Iran? Would it stop supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon? Would it stop backing Palestinian radicals against Israel?Olmert’s aides reckon that Assad is waiting to see whether the Israeli leader is able to consolidate his shaky hold on power.The first test was whether Olmert could get his candidate, Shimon Peres, elected president on Wednesday; he did. The second will be whether he can form a stable and strong-looking “second administration” with the new Labor leader, Ehud Barak, who was elected Tuesday.If Olmert passes, his aides say, Assad will be ready to take up the peacemaking challenge.Syrian comment, however, has been scathingly dismissive. The ruling Ba’ath Party describedOlmert’s secret overtures as “not serious.” The Syrian government newspaper a-Thawra insisted that Syria was always ready to renew negotiations because peace was “a strategic goal.” But it charged that in making his offer, Olmert was only trying to boost his domestic position after last summer’s unsuccessful war in Lebanon.Other Syrian analysts argued that Damascus would not accept any of Israel’s conditions for dialogue – breaking with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.American leaders, meanwhile, do not believe anything can be gained in talks with Assad. But they recognize that Olmert must be seen making the effort, so if war comes in the summer, Israelis will feel their leader did all he could to prevent it.Some Israeli analysts believe Syria is planning an offensive in the summer with the idea that it would force Israel to the negotiating table on Syria’s terms. The planned modus operandi, the analysts say, will be to employ newly purchased Russian anti-aircraft missiles to nullify Israel’s air superiority, anti-tank missiles to pre-empt major armor thrusts and large numbers of Scud ground-to-ground rockets to wreak havoc among Israeli civilians.But Ghadry, the Syrian dissident leader, said Assad would not risk such a war because he knows that to attack Israel would spell the end of his regime.Speaking recently at the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Ghadry took the American neo-Conservative line that countries like Syria must be democratized before true peace with their neighbors could follow. He warned that any peace Israel might make with Assad would be cold and put an end to hopes of a democratic Syria anytime soon.”Don’t strike a peace with a dictator because you’ll be sending a signal to 19 million Syriansthat you don’t care about their liberties and you don’t care about their well-being,” Ghadry said. “And don’t come back later and complain that the Syrian people hate you the way the Egyptian people hate you today.”Ghadry added that it was a pipe dream to think that Syria under Assad would detach itself from Iran for the sake of peace with Israel.”There is as much chance for Damascus to break away from Iran as there is for Israel to break away from the U.S.,” he said.Ghadry, who founded the exiled Reform Party after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, argues that international pressure coupled with the rise of a new “Internet generation” skeptical about the Arab “resistance mentality” and in search of a better life will bring democracy to Syria.Only then, he said, will Israel and Syria be able to make real peace, not only between the two states but between the free peoples on both sides.Ghadri delivered a similar message on Monday to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Right-wing committee members were impressed. Committee Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi of Kadima argued that the bottom line was that if Israel made peace with Assad, it would get Iranian President Mahmoud “Ahmadinejad on its doorstep in Damascus.”But on the left, Ran Cohen of Meretz retorted that Israel didn’t have the time to wait for Syria to become a democracy and needed to make peace with whomever was in power as soon as possible.The Foreign Ministry’s former director-general, Alon Liel, charged that inviting Ghadry to speak in the Knesset sent a terrible message to Syria and compromised peace efforts.Liel had negotiated with another American-based Syrian, Abe Suleiman, who is close to the Assad regime and whom Liel brought to the Knesset two months ago, to deliver a message diametrically opposed to Ghadry’s: That peace with Assad is eminently possible and certainly in Israel’s best interest.Although there is much talk now from all quarters, it is still not clear where the problematic Israeli-Syrian relationship is going. What Olmert did in disclosing his secret messages to Assad was to put the onus on Syria. Now both Jerusalem and Washington are waiting for a signal from Damascus.

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