Reports that archenemies Syria and Israel are conducting indirect discussions about permanent peace under Turkish mediation are the latest and a most unexpected development in the Middle East. This week, both Syria's president Bashar al-Assad and Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert took part in the French-sponsored conference of Mediterranean states in Paris. Given that only last September Israel destroyed a Syrian installation that both Israel and the United States claim to have been part of Syria's nuclear arms programme, the joint attendance of al-Assad and Olmert is of importance as such.
There are of course many reasons to doubt the seriousness of the talks.
Many observes have taken the discussions with Syria to be related Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert's desperate campaign to cling to his position in the face of an ever expanding bribery investigation against him at home. For Syria, the talks could help reduce international pressure to investigate the role of the Syrian leadership in the murder of Lebanon's prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
Anyhow, the fact is that Syria and Israel have had indirect contacts since the 2006 Lebanon war and these contacts have recently become more frequent. Already last summer, Mr Olmert was openly talking about the possibility of negotiating directly with Syria. Moreover, the willingness of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad to establish peace with Israel has been known for long.
Ironically, the significant obstacle in the way of the discussions has been the uncompromisingly negative attitude of George W. Bush's administration towards Syria. The United States is accusing Syria of meddling in Lebanon. It also claims that Syria fails to adequately police the Syria-Iraq border and allows "terrorists" to infiltrate to Iraq.
The central question is whether or not the United States will reconsider its stance regarding discussions between Israel and Syria. Israel and Turkey are currently trying to convince U.S. to participate in the talks. It is clear that the two countries will be unable to reach agreement without considerable backing from the United States. Since President George W. Bush does not like Syrian-Israeli negotiations, a substantially more active US involvement is possible only when the new administration is in the reins. Therefore, one must wait for a potential breakthrough and, perhaps, even direct negotiations between Israel and Syria until that. The fact that Mr Olmert is likely to be forced to resign in the near future further supports this estimation.
On paper, the conflict between Israel and Syria is much easier to solve than the one between Israel and the Palestinians. Bill Clinton, in an interview with the al-Sharq al-awsat newspaper in the spring, quipped that a peace agreement between Israel and Syria could be negotiated in 35 minutes.
Also Jimmy Carter, whose recent visit to Damascus may not have been as private as it was made out to be, has emphasized that 85% of the problems between the countries have been settled.
The conflict between Israel and Syria does not involve such emotionally difficult issues as the status of Jerusalem or the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. The primary issue concerns the Golan Heights that Israel conquered in the 1967 war and which were never part of Palestine under the British mandate.
The heights are significant, on the one hand for strategic reasons and, on the other, for the control of the water resources of the area. Israel annexed Golan in legislation adopted in 1981. Settlements constructed there since count 15 000 inhabitants.
Throughout the time the Assad "dynasty" has been power, the return of the Golan Heights has been one of the central objectives of Syria's foreign policy. Not even in the Yom Kippur war did Syria attempt to attack Israel proper.
Golan was one of the main questions of the 1990 peace negotiations. Already in 1993 Yitzhak Rabin pledged to hand back Golan in its entirety - in other words for Israel to withdraw within its pre-war borders - in return for peace. But, as one of Israel's leading authorities on Syria, professor Eyal Zisser recently wrote, none of Israel's prime ministers had the courage to take the political risk when the moment of truth arose.
Even today, the room to manoeuvre enjoyed by Israel's leaders is restricted as 70 per cent of Israelis oppose giving up Golan.
If both the negotiating partners are serious, there is a historic opportunity for peace in which the issue of Golan is marginal. Firstly, in modern warfare the military importance of Golan is much less than forty years ago. Secondly, Syria's close ally Iran has become a significant regional force.
If Iran is the kind of strategic threat to Israel and the whole of the Near-East as Israel and the United States claim, cutting Syria off this axis could be expected to be the primary political objective of Israel, and the giving up of the whole of Golan should be worth the sacrifice. French sources hint that Damascus is ready to reconsider its relations with Iran.
An agreement with Syria could also reduce the threat that Hizbollah poses to Israel. An agreement would allow Syria to shed its reputation as a terrorism supporting pariah state. This is why Syria wants to involve the United States in the negotiations.
Naturally, an agreement would have to rest on the demilitarisation of Golan. It would also be important for the discussions with Syria not to overshadow those with Palestinians.
Arab nationalism and the closely related Palestinian question are an important element in the Syrian identity. Contrary to for instance Egypt, Syria does not have any distinct own historical identity separate from Arab identity. This is why no Syrian leader is in the position to abandon the Palestinian question in favour of national interests.
For the international community it is also important that Israel's discussions with Syria and the Palestinians should progress in parallel. Turkey's constructive role in mediating the discussions should also be noted by the EU.
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