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What’s driving Israel and Syria to talk?

A Palestinian stands near a signpost demarcating the old Syria-Israel border near Lake Kinneret, which stood until June 5, 1967. (Brian Hendler)

A Palestinian stands near a signpost demarcating the old Syria-Israel border near Lake Kinneret, which stood until June 5, 1967. (Brian Hendler)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – The diminishing fortunes of the Bush administration and the resurgent fortunes of Hezbollah may be behind the surprising announcement that Syria and Israel are renewing peace talks.

The announcements Wednesday by the two countries, which said Israel and Syria would launch talks in Ankara under Turkish auspices, came despite longstanding U.S. opposition to talks with Syria.

The news garnered only tepid endorsement from the Bush administration.

“We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it,” said Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman. “We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria – Syria’s support of terrorism, repression of its own people.”

With Bush nearing the end of his term in office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might have felt emboldened to shuck off Bush’s longstanding resistance to outreach toward Syria, analysts said.

“This demonstrates that what has kept things back is the United States,” said Steve Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. Bush’s “leverage is not as great – Bush has seven-and-a-half months left.”

The Bush administration long has blamed Syria for not doing enough to keep insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq and for interfering in Lebanese affairs. This month, Hezbollah militiamen backed by Iran routed the U.S.-backed Lebanese army in violent clashes in Beirut, alarming officials in the Bush administration.

Syria, analysts said, also may regard Hezbollah’s recent political and military gains with alarm – notwithstanding its longstanding alliance with the Lebanese terrorist group.

Syria’s alliances in Lebanon have shifted over the decades, from the Christians in the 1970s to the Palestinians to the Sunni Muslims and, over the last decade or so, to Hezbollah’s Shiite plurality in the country, noted David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But Hezbollah’s growing power – including its resurgence following the 2006 summer war with Israel, its relative strength vis-a-vis the Lebanese army and its success this week in securing a veto in the Lebanese Cabinet – threaten to undermine the balance of power between Lebanon’s minorities that has allowed Syria to control much of Lebanon.

“Syria has been a patron of Hezbollah,” Makovksy said, “but there has always been an ambivalence because it doesn’t share its Islamist orientation.”

That orientation – militant Islamic extremism – is shared by Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas, the largely Sunni Muslim terrorist group in Gaza that with Iran’s backing has obstructed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s defense establishment long has perceived Syria as the weak link among those groups and has advocated outreach to the Assad regime as a way of crippling Iran’s influence in the region, Makovsky said.

“Unlike the Palestinian issue, where there is a sense that there is a will but not necessarily a capacity, they feel in Syria there is a central authority” to ensure the success of a peace deal, Makovsky said.

Moreover, Hezbollah’s growing strength in Lebanon, and Hamas’ persistent rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel, has made neutralizing Syrian support for those groups all the more urgent for Israel.

But the Bush administration’s reticence to embrace Syria-Israel peace talks has impeded rapprochement – until this week, that is. The Olmert administration reportedly sought and received the green light from the Bush administration for renewing peace talks with Syria.

U.S. support for the process is key. Aside from the return of the Golan Heights from Israel, Syria would seek U.S. support and the opening of Western doors as a tradeoff for foregoing its alliances with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

A State Department official, speaking to JTA on condition of anonymity, said any Israel-Syria peace deal would require Syrian concessions in areas of concern to the United States, including tighter controls at Syria’s border with Iraq and human rights reforms within Syria.

“It is our hope that discussions between Israel and Syria will cover all the relevant issues, including the Syrian government’s support for terrorist groups, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq and intervention in Lebanon – as well as repression inside Syria,” the official said.

David Kimche, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said negotiations will take a while, likely stretching beyond Bush’s presidency.

“These negotiations are not going to end in a week or a month; it’s the beginning of long negotiations,” Kimche said. “The aim is to bring the Americans in. This could be the beginning of movement, not just between Israel and Syria, but between Syria and the United States.”

Kimche discounted suggestions by some Israeli politicians that Wednesday’s announcement was timed to distract the Israeli public from the investigation into Olmert’s financial dealings.

Rather, he said, Israeli and Syrian negotiators reached the point in the process where they were able to make the formal announcement.

For the Israelis, that point was Olmert agreeing to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, said Professor Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“What has changed is the Israeli position,” he said. “Olmert came to the conclusion, probably some time ago, that is in his interest and in Israel’s interest to make peace with Syria, and he is willing to give something that previous prime ministers were not. According to the Syrians, he has committed himself to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.”

That point for Syria, Makovsky said, was a readiness to consider ending its role as a conduit for arms from Iran to Hezbollah.

“You cannot have a peace deal with the Israelis and still be a conduit for weapons,” Makovsky said.

Further down the line, involvement from the United States and others will be necessary, he added.

“If this is going to work, you need a lot of players to help Syria,” he said. “It’s not just a local agreement.”

(JTA managing editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this report from New York.)

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