Syria’s true face?

Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post have dueling editorials today on Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Both note the more conciliatory, peace-oriented tone in President Bashar Assad’s latest pronouncements, made during a visit to Damascus by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But while Ha’aretz sees in them signs of genuine, new approach by Assad, and finds that obstacles to peace lie in Israel, the Post’s editors are more skeptical about Syria’s true intentions.

Here’s what Ha’aretz sees:

The dialogue with Syria has opened a serious new window of opportunity. Assad claims to have presented a number of practical proposals for continuing negotiations, and has announced that he would like to hold direct talks after the U.S. elections. By this he is openly exhibiting his expectations that the Americans will be partners. No less important is the businesslike tone of his comments about Syrian contacts with Israel. It is encouraging that in addition to the French president, the ruler of Qatar and the prime minister of Turkey – the country that has hosted the indirect talks – have highlighted the negotiations with Israel in their talks in Damascus…

In the meantime, it seems that if there is an obstacle to the talks, it comes from the Israeli side. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who initiated the dialogue, is about to end his tenure, so the status of the person responsible for the negotiations is unclear. This situation has already broken the talks’ continuity. Every effort must be taken to ensure that this break will be short, because it is vital that the meetings keep their momentum.

And here’s what the Post sees:

We can’t help but ponder why Assad’s rhetoric veers so unsteadily between belligerence and conciliation.

Israel must be clear-eyed, first of all, on the nature of the Syrian regime, which happens to be engaged in brisk military build-up and procurement…

Damascus is also a long-standing state sponsor of terrorism, hosting Hamas and other extremist Palestinian organizations. It has not only shipped Iranian weapons to Hizbullah but also supplied it with Russian-made military equipment such as the Kornet anti-tank missile and its own 220mm anti-personnel rockets. Syria has also played a key role as the source of foreign fighters and insurgents infiltrating Iraq.

Although a Kuwaiti newspaper reported this week that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal had left Damascus for Sudan because of Syria’s interest in moving along the diplomatic talks with Israel, Jerusalem officials have challenged the claim.

If Assad is making conciliatory sounds now, therefore, perhaps it’s not because he has abandoned a belligerent posture, but because it serves his interests and deflects pressure. This, indeed, is a long-established pattern.

Both, however, add caveats at the end. Here’s the Post’s:

Then again, he may be sincere. If so, he should come to Jerusalem, or invite our premier to Damascus, and lay out his peace vision.

And here’s Ha’aretz’s:

Of course, the concerns and suspicions raised by the opponents of dialogue with Syria should not be ignored. Most importantly, it is important to evaluate the price Israel will have to pay for an agreement with Syria. But there will be time for this when the direct negotiations begin and the Israeli public, which recognizes that Israel will have to withdraw from the Golan Heights, learns what it will get in return.

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