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Is Bibi interested in peace with Syria?

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In exchange for peace with Syria, is Israel ready to trade the Golan Heights, seen here with an abandoned Syrian tank in a photograph from 1972? (Robert Wallace / Creative Commons)

In exchange for peace with Syria, is Israel ready to trade the Golan Heights, seen here with an abandoned Syrian tank in a photograph from 1972? (Robert Wallace / Creative Commons)

NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM (JTA) — When it comes to Israel-Syria peacemaking, it takes three to tango.

Although Israel and Syria have been talking for the past two years, partly under Turkish auspices, progress was limited without Washington in the equation.

Now with the new Obama administration eager to play a role and Syrian President Bashar Assad signaling readiness to move forward, the question is will a new, hard-line Israeli government under the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu be ready to discuss withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Damascus?

In an early March visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized the importance that the Obama administration attaches to peacemaking with Syria. In Jerusalem, she told Netanyahu that it was a top priority, and in Ankara she praised the ongoing Turkish mediation effort.

"The importance of this track, the peace effort, cannot be overstated," Clinton declared after talks Saturday with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

Although the previous U.S. administration recognized that detaching Syria from the radical Iranian axis would be a major strategic gain for the West, President Bush didn’t believe it was possible. He deeply distrusted Assad, whom he blamed for the assassination of the pro-Western Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.

Since then, the United States has not had an ambassador in Damascus, and Bush refrained from diplomatic contact with the Assad regime. Obama, however, already has dispatched emissaries from Congress, the National Security Council and the State Department to the Syrian capital, sending a clear signal that Washington is ready to revive the dormant diplomatic channel with Syria.

It’s a crucial signal for Assad.

For Assad to even consider breaking with Iran, he would need political and economic inducements on a scale only the Americans can provide. He has always made it clear that the United States must be deeply involved for a Syria-Israel peace process to succeed. Indeed, in a mid-February interview with the U.K. Guardian, Assad said he hoped the United States would be "the main arbiter" in peacemaking with Israel.

"There is no substitute for the U.S.," Assad declared.

The Syrian president also has been preparing Arab opinion for significant peace moves. In an early March interview with the UAE newspaper Al Khaleej, he warned that even if there were peace with Israel, there would be no normalization until the Palestinian problem was solved. It seemed like an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians, but also suggested that Syria would be ready to conclude a formal peace deal with Israel before the Palestinians.

The ball appears to be in Netanyahu’s court.

Much will depend on whether the prime minister-designate will be prepared to reaffirm the so-called "Rabin deposit" — the Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace and adequate security arrangements — as his predecessor Ehud Olmert reportedly was in late 2008. In his election campaign, Netanyahu vowed that he would not abandon the Golan, and in his meeting with Clinton he indicated, precisely for that reason, that he would prefer to prioritize the Palestinian rather than the Syrian track.

Nevertheless, once he takes office Netanyahu almost certainly will find himself under great pressure to move on the Syria track.

For one thing, it’s what the Americans will want. The Israeli defense establishment also is solidly in favor of peace moves with Syria because of the enormous strategic potential.

Netanyahu also has a tactical consideration. By moving on the Syrian track, he would be able to deflect U.S. pressure for movement on the Palestinian track, on which the Likud chief appears to be dragging his feet.

"Netanyahu has let us know that he is very keenly tuned in to the Iranian threat,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad analyst and co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Web site. “Presumably he understands he will have to work with the U.S. on this. So you put two and two together and in my view, from Netanyahu’s standpoint it would make sense for him to say to Obama and Clinton, ‘Look, you know you are not going to get much out of me on the Palestinian issue, but I am willing to be very forthcoming on Syria.’ ”

But strong forces also are agitating against Netanyahu moving on Syria.

A narrow right-wing government in the 120-member Knesset would severely restrict Netanyahu’s room for maneuvering, and the right wing has substantive reservations about a land-for-peace deal with Syria — some of which Netanyahu may genuinely share.

For example, right-wingers argue that from a military point of view it is imperative that Israel retain the Golan to be in a position to swiftly dispatch ground forces to nullify Syria’s huge rocket arsenal in the event of hostilities. They also maintain that no matter what he signs, Assad is unlikely to fully sever his ties with Tehran or stop military supplies to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

If Netanyahu’s statements on the Golan are taken at face value, the chances of his being ready to make an historic compromise are zero.

What keeps the analysts guessing, however, is that in the late 1990s, during his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu appeared willing to withdraw from the Golan. In secret negotiations with the Syrians on Netanyahu’s behalf, American cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder produced a 10-point draft "peace treaty" in August 1998 stating that "Israel will withdraw from the Syrian lands taken in 1967, in accordance with Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 … to a commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923."

Netanyahu has since repudiated the document, and Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror, then the Israel Defense Forces’ representative in the talks, claims he drew the map reflecting Israel’s territorial offer and that it left Israeli forces on the Golan. The Lauder affair suggests, however, that if the circumstances are right, Netanyahu may be prepared to cut a land-for-peace deal that includes a clear and verifiable Syrian break with Iran and Hezbollah.

If he does, he will be able to count on the support of the opposition centrist and left-wing parties — Kadima, Labor and Meretz — to push the agreement through the Knesset in much the same way Menachem Begin relied on Labor for a Knesset majority on the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978.

It remains to be seen, however, whether all these pieces of the puzzle can fall into place.

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