Syria and Israel Appear to Edge Closer to Deal

After several false starts over the past few years, Israel and Syria finally seem serious about peace negotiations.

What’s changed?

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad have gone public about their readiness for talks. An active and determined mediator, Turkey, has been accepted by both sides. And in a recent interview with the Qatar-based newspaper al-Watan, Assad said Olmert told him via the Turks that he is ready to return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace deal — a claim Olmert did not deny.

But the main difference is the impending change of administration in Washington.

Israel and Syria are preparing for a new U.S. president who may be ready to invest in an Israel-Syria peace deal, primarily to detach Syria from an alliance with Iran.

The Turkish mediation effort is moving into high gear. In a lightning visit to Damascus over the weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a detailed meeting with Assad focusing mainly on the question of negotiations with Israel. A Turkish envoy is expected in Jerusalem soon to brief Olmert on that exchange, and set up a follow-up meeting in Turkey between Israeli and Syrian officials.

If all goes well, the next step would be an Olmert-Assad summit.

Assad has been sounding a distinctly upbeat note. He recently told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that 85 percent of the issues between Syria and Israel already have been resolved.

However, Assad apparently does not believe real progress will be possible as long as President Bush is in the White House. In a range of recent interviews with the Arab media, Syrian officials have said that Assad plans to use the next few months to foster conditions for progress for the next U.S. administration.

Clearly the Syrians are hoping that whoever is elected president will follow the Baker-Hamilton study group’s advice of 2006 to promote Israeli-Syria peace — a step Bush has refused to take.

Israeli players and analysts agree that Washington holds the key. The only way Syria can be induced to sever its close military, diplomatic and economic ties with Iran is if it receives a better offer from the West — an offer, they say, only the United States can make.

“We could reach an Israel-Syria bilateral deal relatively quickly,” Alon Liel, the chairman of the Israeli-Syria peace lobby and a retired Israeli diplomat, told JTA. “The problem is getting Syria to agree on major regional issues like Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinians. And here we need the U.S.”

The Bush White House, however, seems more intent on exposing Syrian duplicity than in helping Assad — a leader it does not trust — to make peace with Israel.

The latest Olmert-Assad peace overtures coincided with U.S. congressional hearings on an alleged clandestine Syrian nuclear facility destroyed by an Israeli airstrike last September. Some analysts suggested that the timing of the hearings might have been geared deliberately to torpedo peace efforts.

Photographs shown at the hearings of the Syrian site bombed by Israel and a North Korean nuclear facility displayed an uncanny resemblance. U.S. intelligence suggested that the Syrian reactor was close to becoming operational and would have been able to produce enough plutonium over a year or two for several nuclear bombs.

Israeli officials have been ambivalent about the hearings. Although the evidence seems to show that Israel was justified in bombing the Syrian facility, Israeli defense officials were concerned on two counts: that humiliating Syria so publicly could spark new tension between Damascus and Jerusalem, and that going public with photographs taken close to the nuclear site — presumably provided by Israel — could put Israeli intelligence sources at risk.

Veteran military analyst Alex Fishman in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot wrote that it was unprecedented for one intelligence agency to hand over such sensitive material to another knowing the recipient would make it public. He dubbed the Americans’ actions as an “intelligence strip tease.”

Fishman speculated that it might have been an attempt by someone in Israel to convince the Americans of the accuracy of Israel’s intelligence and its capabilities vis-a-vis other nuclear programs in the region — namely Iran’s. But even that does not condone such irresponsible conduct, he wrote.

The bombing of its facility, however, may well have been a major factor in Syria’s new willingness to engage in serious peace talks. The bombing and the destructive Israeli air campaign in the 2006 Lebanon war seem to have left the Syrian regime worried about its ability to survive a future military showdown with Israel.

In choosing the path of negotiations, the Syrians also want to deflect criticism of their suspected involvement in the assassinations of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese politicians. The Syrians are motivated as well by a desire for major Western investment in Syria of the sort Egypt received after its 1979 peace deal with Israel.

Still, peacemaking will not be easy, and the big question remains: Will the Syrians be ready to leave the Iranian axis as the quid pro quo?

Peace attempts in the 1990s and in 2000 bogged down before the Damascus-Tehran connection was cemented. Now that it’s strong, making peace with Syria is that much more complex — but also that much more rewarding for Israel and the West.

In Israel, peace talks create problems, too.

It is not clear whether Olmert would be able to gather majority support for a deal that returns the strategically valuable Golan Heights to Syria. Polls show that a consistent majority of Israelis — approximately 70 percent — oppose withdrawing from the Golan, even in exchange for peace.

While proponents argue that peace with Syria would constitute a major strategic gain — detaching Syria from the Iranian axis, cutting off support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah from Iran and pressuring the Palestinians also to cut a deal with Israel — opponents counter that Syria never will genuinely sever its ties with Iran. They say that if Israel leaves the Golan, it will only be a matter of time before the heights become a forward Iranian base.

Even now, major gaps exist between the Israeli and Syrian positions. Olmert prefers direct, secret talks and an a priori Syrian commitment to break with Iran. Assad wants public talks with U.S. mediation and a prior written commitment by Israel to hand back the Golan.

In the immediate future, the Turks’ main task will be to bridge these differences and create a framework for peace talks.

Then it’s up to the next U.S. president to advance the process. Only a U.S. president can give Israel the backing it needs to feel confident about withdrawing from the Golan and the Syrians the incentives they require to break with Iran.

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