JERUSALEM – "Spin" was the chorus that predictably emanated from Israel’s parliament when the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced last week that Israel and Syria had initiated talks ultimately aimed at reaching a peace agreement. But to reduce the renewal of peace talks between Jerusalem and Damascus, after an eight-year hiatus, to mere "spin" is to underestimate how it currently serves the strategic interests of both countries.
That doesn’t mean Olmert didn’t benefit from the timing of the announcement, with headlines about talks with Syria nudging aside headlines about a police investigation into suspicions of corruption against the prime minister, regarding large sums of cash he received from a U.S. businessman. But the contacts with Syria began already a year ago, long before Olmert’s latest legal woes, and they have the strong backing of many in Israel’s defense establishment.
Security officials are convinced that the chances of doing a deal with Damascus are greater than the likelihood of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. The Syrian track is less complicated. Israel knows what Syria wants: the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic mountain range that Israel captured during the 1967 war. Syria knows what Israel wants: an end to its strategic relationship with Iran, an end to its backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and normal relations.
There are other issues that will need to be settled, like the fate of some 20,000 Jewish settlers living on the Golan Heights, water arrangements, and the depth of demilitarized zones, especially on the Syrian side of the border. But these appear infinitely more soluble than the raft of differences between Israel and the Palestinians the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, borders, and the fate of over a quarter of a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Progress on the Syrian track, some also argue, will force the Palestinians, fearful they might lose out, to adopt more conciliatory positions. It might even force Hamas, less sure of support from Damascus, to temper the rocket attacks from Gaza, reducing the likelihood of a major Israeli military operation in the coastal strip later this summer.
But the overriding consideration driving those who support talks with Syria is the desire to pry President Bashar Assad from the clutches of Iran and erode his support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Undermining ties between Damascus and Tehran, they argue, could retard Iran’s efforts to achieve nuclear capability.
It could undercut Iran’s influence in the region and also significantly lessen the combined missile and rocket threat posed to Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Were Israel ever to attack Iran’s nuclear sites Israel, like the U.S. and much of Europe, believes Tehran is bent on building nuclear weapons defense officials would prefer to have Syria sitting on the sidelines rather than actively involved, along with Hezbollah and Hamas, in a concerted, retaliatory missile attack on the Jewish state.
Israeli officials pointed to the stony silence with which Iran greeted the renewal of talks as immediate vindication of the decision to re-engage Damascus. The London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted sources close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying he was deeply disappointed at the news that Syria and Israel were renewing talks.
The Web site of the daily Ha’aretz newspaper quoted a senior Israeli official saying that Iran seemed to be in a state of "shock." The renewal of talks, the official predicted, would have "an immediate impact on their status in the region."
That type of unreserved optimism may be a little premature. The acknowledgment that indirect talks are under way does not mean an agreement is around the corner. The last time Israel and Syria met at the negotiating table was in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in 2000, but those talks broke down over Israel’s refusal to give Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, its main water source.
Syria insists Israel withdraw to the 1967 lines, which it says would give it control of the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. But while several Israeli prime ministers have quietly communicated a willingness to cede the Golan, they have not been ready to give Syria access to the waterline. When former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is now defense minister, conducted the talks eight years ago, he insisted the border be drawn a few hundred meters from the lake, leaving Israel in control of the waterline.
Those negotiations were direct, with Barak sitting across the table from Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Shara. The current talks, which are being held in Istanbul, are indirect, with Turkish officials scurrying between the Israeli and Syrian teams, located in different hotels. These initial talks are meant to lay the groundwork for full, direct negotiations further down the line.
Israeli officials believe Syria’s desperate desire to extricate itself from international isolation is behind its readiness to renew talks. U.S. President George Bush has included Syria in his "axis of evil," and Assad has been further tainted by the investigation into Syria’s alleged involvement in the 2005 car bomb assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. This explains his insistence on U.S. involvement in the talks.
Opponents in Israel of renewed contact with Syria insist Assad does not view Israel as a peace partner, but rather as a convenient stepping stone to the White House. The Syrian leader, they say, cannot be trusted to sever ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and is offering only the prospect of full talks, not a comprehensive peace agreement. In this light, ceding a mountain range to Syria that overlooks northern Israel would be perilous, they warn.
But supporters of talks with Syria counter that even if Assad’s ultimate goal is not a peace deal with Israel, or even getting back the Golan, but rather a renewal of relations with the U.S. and a cementing of Syrian interests in Lebanon, re-engaging Damascus serves Israel’s goal of shaking the Syria-Iran alliance.
Clearly, a peace agreement is still a distant prospect. With Olmert facing serious corruption charges, it is also doubtful he will be able to galvanize the type of public and political support that will be required to cobble together a deal with Syria and convince Israelis to buy it. For now, though, both Israel and Syria seem to have a mutual interest in renewing talks and in announcing that they have done so.