Biggest Challenge to Syria Deal Could Be Opposition by Israelis

The skepticism that greeted Ehud Olmert’s announcement that Israel and Syria are renewing peace talks underscores the domestic challenges the prime minister faces in selling any Israel-Syria peace deal at home.

After months of hints and overtures from Jerusalem and Damascus, both governments issued nearly identical statements Wednesday revealing that their envoys were holding indirect, Turkish-mediated negotiations in Ankara.

The simultaneous announcements were themselves something of a milestone, considering the reciprocal saber-rattling between Israel and Syria following the 2006 Lebanon War and Israel’s bombing last year of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility.

But negotiations over a peace deal face a host of substantive obstacles, including domestic concerns.

The starting point for negotiations seems obvious on all sides. The Syrians will demand the full return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed

Israel will demand peace, recognition and normalized relations, and will require that Syria discontinue support for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — Israel’s primary foes.

The last set of official peace talks, at Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 2000, collapsed over Syria’s demand for a return of the Golan.

Assad has shown no sign of budging. His foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said Wednesday that Damascus had received a “commitment” from Israel on ceding the territory and that without this, there would be no hope of an accord.

Jerusalem officials denied any such sweeping agreement, allowing only that Israel has arrived at a “formula” for resolving the Golan dispute.

Olmert appeared to allude to the possibility of ceding at least part of the Golan in a speech he gave Wednesday evening.

“The negotiations will not be easy, they will not be simple, they could be protracted and, ultimately, require making difficult concessions,” he said.

Describing himself as willing to tackle peacemaking with Damascus despite the potentially steep price, he said, “It’s better to talk than to shoot.”

With early reports indicating that Syria has far more to gain — the Golan, engagement with the United States — than Israel, many in the Jewish state suggested the announcement of the talks came primarily to distract attention from Olmert’s legal woes.

A poll conducted by Channel 2 television found that 57 percent of Israelis think the talks are linked to the investigation of suspicions that Olmert he took bribes from an American businessman while serving in previous government posts.

Fifty-eight percent of poll respondents said the prime minister lacks the legitimacy necessary to conduct negotiations in good faith.

Most significant, 70 percent said they would oppose ceding the Golan even under a comprehensive peace accord.

Censure of Olmert was quick to come from all spectrums of the political opposition.

“I very much hope this isn’t a distraction gimmick,” said Zehava Gal-On of the leftist Meretz Party.

Effi Eitam, a lawmaker with the right-wing National Union and a Golan resident, accused Olmert, who has been criticized for pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians while rockets are being fired from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, of deepening Israel’s national security plight.

“Over recent years, the State of Israel has increasingly failed in defending its citizens in the North and South,” Eitam said. “And from this position of weakness, we are now going to forsake a strategic asset and our quietest border to a partner who is unwilling to give anything in return.”

Olmert is likely to face opposition from within his own government coalition, some of whom distrust the idea of territorial concessions. Others simply distrust the prime minister.

“I think that the fact that this comes from the Prime Minister’s Office tells us of another very serious deterioration in how the Prime Minister’s Office works, apparently — most likely — with Olmert’s knowledge, in order to save his political skin,” lawmaker Danny Yatom, whose Labor Party is a junior partner to Olmert’s Kadima in the coalition, told Israel Radio.

Even if Israel and Syria manage to overcome their differences and reach an accord, Olmert will have difficulty getting it approved at home. A 1999 law requires any ceding of land annexed by Israel to be approved by a majority vote in the Knesset, and then in a referendum.

By then, Olmert’s current scandal may be forgotten, as were a string of previous criminal investigations against him. And Assad may attain his primary goal of new ties with the United States under President Bush’s successor.

“The Syrians’ deep desire is to emerge from the almost leper-like political isolation in which they find themselves,” the chief of Israel’s military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, told Ha’aretz last week. “Israel alone cannot open the gates of the world to Syria. That asset has to be supplied by someone else.

“Therefore, Assad is preparing for the moment when the U.S. administration will change, when, he believes, Israel will give him what he wants.”

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