Janine Zacharia
International Herald Tribune
July 29, 2008 - 4:53pm

Israel and Syria have suddenly found fresh reasons to try to make peace after eight years of stalemate.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, concerned about the survival of his regime, wants to reap the political and economic benefits of ending his nation's isolation from the West.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, mindful of his own precarious political future, seeks to wrest Syria out of Iran's orbit and stop it from funneling weapons to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which used them against Israel in the 2006 war.

"There is a possibility for serious diplomacy leading to a breakthrough," said Aaron David Miller, author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace" and a former U.S. negotiator who participated in the last round of talks.

President Bill Clinton personally brokered those negotiations, which took place in January 2000 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. They fell apart over Israeli reluctance to fully relinquish control of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

This time, Turkey, a growing power eager to demonstrate regional leadership skills, is facilitating the talks. Israel enjoys good relations with its fellow non-Arab democracy in the Middle East. Syria wants to emulate Turkey's strong, secular rule over a Muslim population and its ability to balance ties with the United States and Iran.

Turkish contacts with the two sides, periodic during the past few months, are resuming this week in Istanbul and are moving into a more mature phase, observers say.

"Never has the regional input been more decisive in influencing the course of negotiations," Miller said. "The Israelis will demand that the Hamas problem and the Hezbollah problem and the Lebanon problem and the Iran problem be ameliorated by an Israeli-Syrian agreement. It's no longer just about peace with Syria."

While the sides have agreed on the agenda for formal peace talks, Syria is waiting for clarification on whether Israel will withdraw fully to the June 4, 1967, border. Direct negotiations could begin as soon as September, according to Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Israel and Syria have the "political will" to end the conflict between them, the Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan, said July 16 in a television interview.

Miller says three variables will determine the success of the talks: Israel's willingness to withdraw from 100 percent of the Golan Heights, Syria's willingness to moderate its ties with Iran, and U.S. willingness to mediate and be a financial and military guarantor of any deal.

The benefits for Israel are clear: It would not have to worry any longer about a threat from the north and would need to resolve only the Palestinian conflict before it had a full circle of peace on its borders. Israel has shown it is ready to negotiate about the Golan Heights in return for adequate security guarantees. Olmert himself said July 13 that he is "serious" about making peace, although he might not last long enough in office to achieve his goal.

His party will hold primaries in September that may distract just as direct negotiations start. Entangled in a corruption scandal, he is deeply unpopular. In a poll published earlier this month, 79 percent of his party said they thought he should step down.

No matter who is in charge, Israel will continue to be motivated by Iran's push toward nuclear capability. Wresting Syria out of a decades-long alliance with Iran has become more urgent as Iran resists diplomatic pressure to slow its program.

Syria has its own motivations to seek peace with Israel now. It wants an end to sanctions the United States imposed in 2004, partly to punish it for trying to destabilize Lebanon. It is no longer an exporter of oil, producing 400,000 barrels a day, only enough to sustain its own population of 20 million.

Prices on imported food rose 60 percent last year, and the specter of bread riots like those in Egypt leave Assad jittery. Syria also would not mind deflecting attention from a UN investigation into the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, that implicates Syrian officials.

"The Syrian regime cares first and foremost about its survival," said Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. "If ushering in a new relationship with the U.S. and signing a peace treaty with Israel enhances its prospects of longevity, it will go that route."

Assad is asking the United States and France to participate in future negotiations with Israel, and he was welcomed earlier this month at a regional conference in Paris as a respected statesman.

"Peace is our strategic choice," said a Syrian government adviser, Ahmad Samir al-Taki, who spoke in Washington at the Brookings Institution last week.

That objective probably will not be possible without U.S. involvement to provide financing for the resettlement of Jewish settlers on the Golan Heights inside Israel proper and to provide money - and maybe even troops - to guarantee Israeli security in the area.

President George W. Bush is currently putting his emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and is cool to the idea of engaging with Syria, which his administration has publicly chastised for allowing militants to cross its border into Iraq and attack U.S. troops there.

Most recently, his administration has accused Syria of secretly building, with North Korean help, a nuclear facility that Israel bombed and destroyed last year. So a final agreement is likely to depend on the commitment of his successor.

Olmert "would like to get a deal done as soon as possible, and the Syrians would like to make sure that there's enough progress that the next U.S. president will find it impossible not to join," Indyk said.


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