The Boston Globe (Editorial)
April 30, 2008 - 6:22pm

IN A MESSAGE to Syria's President Bashar Assad last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert affirmed that Israel would give all the occupied Golan Heights back to Syria in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement. This move was belated but wise. It could alter the Middle East chessboard for the better, greatly reducing the chances of a disastrous new regional conflagration.

The Israeli gesture to Syria will have meaning only if the two governments follow it up with serious diplomatic engagement. Recent exchanges between the two have been indirect; indeed, a Syrian cabinet minister said the recent Israeli offer was relayed to Assad by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The last full-fledged negotiations between Israel and Syria foundered in 2000 over a dispute about control of the northern shore of Lake Galilee. Since then, the dangers confronting each side have only mounted. Today more than ever, both countries would benefit from a peace accord that resolves disputes over territory and security, finally ending the conflict between them.

Olmert gave the signal that Assad wanted to hear: that Israel was ready to trade all the Golan Heights for peace with Syria. Both sides accept that there will be no Syrian retrieval of the Golan without an agreement on security issues, and no security pact without return of the Golan.

In any talks about security, Israel will want Syria to stop arming the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, stop helping Iran to arm and supervise Hezbollah, and stop harboring leaders of Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Above all, an Israeli-Syrian peace deal will have to remove Syria from Iran's sphere of influence. This strategic objective is not unique to Israel. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab Gulf states also want Syria to return to the Arab fold.

The Bush administration ought to be striving for the same goal. Until recently, however, President Bush seemed hypnotized by the neoconservative notion that America need not talk to troublemakers, much less bargain with them. Indeed, Israeli officials have hinted that, until recently, the American administration was holding Israel back from making a serious overture to Syria.

Assad has made no secret of his intent to parlay any peace treaty with Israel into a rapprochement with Washington. But last week, he said that peace negotiations with Israel will probably have to wait until there is a new US president.

The rehabilitation of American foreign policy can not come soon enough. 


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