Israel and Syria Flirt With Détente

JERUSALEM – With negotiations on the Palestinian track limping along unproductively, Israeli leaders have again begun talking about renewing peace negotiations with Syria. But at the same time they are keeping a wary eye on new deployments by the Syrian military.

"Israel is making every effort to get Syria back to the negotiating table," Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently told Israel Radio.

Ben-Eliezer’s comments came just days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made comments that some interpreted as evidence of a possible secret conduit between Israel and Syria. Talking to journalists, the Israeli leader said he supported face-to-face negotiations with Damascus. "That doesn’t mean that when we sit together you have to see us," he told the reporters, sparking speculation of a secret back channel between Jerusalem and Damascus.

Ben-Eliezer said that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was a partner to efforts to renew talks, but he would not say whether overtures to Syria had been productive.

Shortly after Ben-Eliezer’s remarks, Syria confirmed there were contacts with Israel via a third party. Dr. Bushra Kanfani, spokeswoman for the Syrian foreign ministry, told a Kuwaiti paper that Turkey was "used as a channel of communication" and "listens to both sides’ positions."

"We in Syria don’t miss an opportunity to make peace," said Kanfani. "This is our choice – that the conditions [of peace] be fair and just, and based on the condition that Israel withdraw to the June 4 [1967] lines. The problem is on their side."

The Syrian leadership, however, seems to be hearing very different noises emanating from Israel to those being made by Ben-Eliezer. According to media reports this week, the Syrian army has mobilized some of its reserve troops in fear of an Israeli attack. The London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper reported that Syria is conducting large-scale army exercises and is operating on the assumption that Israel is preparing for an offensive.

One explanation in Israel is that Syria is aware of plans by Hezbollah to carry out a revenge attack over the assassination of Imad Mughniyah in February, and fears that Israel’s response to such an attack would be severe and could spark regional warfare. Mughniyah, whom Israel accused of being a Hezbollah terror mastermind, was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. Hezbollah has accused Israel of carrying out the assassination and has vowed revenge. Israel has denied any connection to the killing.

Israeli defense officials say the reports of Syrian troop deployments are exaggerated, but that they have not gone unnoticed. Israel has sent messages to Damascus via third parties saying it has no plans to attack Syria, but that if it is attacked its response would be harsh.

Were Israel and Syria to meet around the negotiating table, Ben-Eliezer said Israel was fully aware "what the price would be" for a peace agreement. Since Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic range on its border with Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, Damascus has demanded its return as a condition for any peace treaty with Israel.

The last time Israel and Syria sat down to talk was in Shepherdstown, W.V., in 2000, when then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara tried to negotiate a deal. But the talks crashed over Syria’s demand that Israel withdraw right up to the banks of the Sea of Galilee – a demand Barak ultimately was not prepared to countenance.

This would leave Syria in control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel’s main water source. There have been reports that Barak insisted that the border run a few dozen meters to the east of the shore, which would leave Israel in control of the water’s edge.

Olmert recently reiterated his conditions for sitting down at the table with the Syrians: Damascus must stop supporting Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ben-Eliezer’s comments are just the latest in a series of peace feelers that both sides have put out since the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and which have not amounted to anything concrete. Israeli leaders have often played down comments by Syrian President Bashar Assad in favor of peace negotiations, insisting his real goal is not reconciliation with Israel but alleviating U.S. pressure on his regime. By talking peace, they say, Assad thinks he can curry favor with the administration of U.S. President George Bush, which has included Syria in its "axis of evil."

But Olmert has had another reason for responding tepidly to Syrian overtures: Washington has strongly opposed any contact with Syria, and the prime minister has been reluctant to defy Israel’s staunchest ally.

Since Israel and the Palestinians renewed talks several months ago, they have failed to make any real progress. In the past, when contacts with the Palestinians have faltered, Israeli leaders have tended to flirt with the idea of talks with Syria.

With the U.S. leaning on Israel and the Palestinians to move the negotiations forward, especially before Bush arrives in Israel in May to mark the country’s 60th anniversary, Israel’s latest talk of peace with Syria could, like previous rounds of wooing between the two countries, end up being just another unrequited flirtation.