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Syrian, Israeli backdoor talks now emerging

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2007


The last time there was a peace breakthrough that surprised the world, a few offbeat Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals gathered in 1993 at a country house in Norway and came away with the Oslo Accords.

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So when news broke this week in Israel's respected newspaper Haaretz, that Israel and Syria had reached a series of secret understandings, it is no surprise that it sent shock waves through a region often plagued by stalemate and violence.

Officials here are distancing themselves from the meetings that took place between Israelis and Syrians in Europe from September 2004 to June 2006, portraying them as an "academic" exercise. But that doesn't mean Israel isn't open to a deal with Syria.

In fact, some Israelis see Syria as a possible key to undermining Hizbullah's threat. The Israeli losses to Shiite militants in Lebanon last summer prompted Wednesday's resignation of the Israeli army's chief of staff, and is triggering calls for the prime minister and defense minister to follow. Swapping the Golan Heights – for Syria withdrawing support for Hizbullah – might be considered, say Israeli analysts.

And, the very fact that Israelis have been meeting with Syrian representatives is indicative of a willingness on the part of some of the region's players to restart a peace track that has long been viewed as derailed indefinitely.

"If it would be up to us academics, we could have solved it a long time ago. But it is up to the leadership," says Moshe Moaz, an Israeli political scientist and Syria scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Moaz – speaking by telephone from Boston, where he is currently on sabbatical at Harvard University – was involved in several of the meetings that took place, which involved both a combination of academics, officials, and former officials, he says.

"I have the sense that the government was informed, but didn't approve of it," he says.

Reports of a resurrection of the Israeli-Syrian track, which broke off officially around the same time Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations collapsed in the summer of 2000, conjure deeply different reactions – and come at a volatile, precarious time in the region.

Proponents of talking see Damascus as holding the key to reining in Hizbullah, stopping the flow of arms from Iran into Lebanon, and sizing down the tactical might of Hamas, whose most powerful Palestinian figure, Khaled Mashal, resides in the Syrian capital.

And ever since the end of the brutal war last summer in Lebanon, opinion-makers here have been trying to point the nation's compass for compromise in the direction of Syria. Only a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, some analysts say, can prevent Israel from finding itself in another war with Hizbullah.

On the other end of this viewpoint are skeptics, both Israeli and Arab, who say that the powerbrokers are as far away from coming to terms as they were before. Israeli officials, as well as many in the Bush administration, various sources here say, view Syria as a country continuing to sponsor terrorist activities. Therefore, they say, it's a country that should be isolated, not engaged.

Moreover, if the assumed price for a peace deal between Israel and Syria is an Israeli withdrawal from Golan, pollsters show that the cost is still too high in the minds of most Israelis.

Even further, observers here say they find it hard to imagine Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, have anything approaching the political capital necessary for a deal with Syria. Both men have very low approval ratings – one newspaper last week put Mr. Olmert's at 14 percent.

Olmert said in late December that he would consider restarting talks with Syria, but only if Damascus first ended its support for Hizbullah and other anti-Israeli groups.

The resignation Wednesday of Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, coupled with an investigation into Olmert's role in a banking sale, might only bolster the image of Olmert's helm as one too racked with scandal to sell the people on peace.

General Halutz stepped down after dozens of internal inquiries into the month-long Lebanon war found widespread problems in the military's performance.