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Syrians seek seat at Mideast peace table

As Damascus works towards regaining the Golan Heights, Israelis prepare for internal political battles over the contested border area.

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Meanwhile former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the country's right-wing Likud party, is vowing a political fight if Israel's government opens talks on relinquishing the heights, reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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The Israeli opposition leader made his prediction Tuesday during a pre-recorded address broadcast at 30th anniversary celebrations for Katzrin, a major Golan town.
"I remember the Golan Heights without Katzrin, and suddenly we see a thriving city in the land of Israel, which having been a gem of the Second Temple era has been revived anew," said Netanyahu, who opinion polls predict could win the next general elections. "This place will remain part of the State of Israel forever, but it will be much bigger and will continue to be beautiful."
The Likud Party chairman's comment appeared to be directed, at least in part, at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, given widespread speculation that he could enter peace talks with Syria in which Damascus would demand a return of the Golan.

Syria, which has seen relations deteriorate with some Arab states because of its alliance with Iran and the Shiite Hizbullah movement, appears to have broad Arab backing for its demand that the Golan be included in any peace deal, reports the Israel Insider.

The Arab League said yesterday that it would consider President George W. Bush's call for a Mideast conference in the fall to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on the condition that Israel concede the Golan Heights to Syria.
"Peace cannot be completed without withdrawal from Syrian territory, so all the parties have to be there," (Arab League Secretary General Amr) Moussa said at a press conference in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that in a rare poll of Syrian public opinion, a majority favor peace with Israel in return for the Golan.

The poll was sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow, a bipartisan organization that seeks to erode support for international terrorism.
In the poll, 63 percent of Syrians said they favor their country working with the U.S. to resolve the war in Iraq. By a slight 44 percent to 39 percent margin, most said they oppose fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq.
Fifty-one percent said they would favor a peace treaty with longtime nemesis Israel if it withdraws from the Golan and recognizes Syrian sovereignty there. Israelis strongly oppose leaving the Golan, the boundary area between the two countries that Israel annexed nearly three decades ago.

Meanwhile, Daniel Levy, a former peace negotiator for Israel, says on his blog Prospects for Peace that it appears Israel is less committed to the US desire for regime change in Syria out of practical considerations, especially since one winner from any major political change in Syria could be that country's Muslim Brotherhood, which is aligned to Israel's enemy, the Palestinian Sunni militant group Hamas.

Indications are that Israel is far from enamored with the regime change policy. In fact, there has been a flurry of backchannel diplomatic activity between Israel and Syria over the past weeks. Israeli and Syrian sources have both confirmed Turkish mediation, and the Turks are not alone in playing this role. There has also been a conscious effort on both sides to ratchet down the confrontational rhetoric, and to take steps to avoid any accidental military escalation this summer.
As the backchannel messaging continues between Jerusalem and Damascus, the lack of an American willingness to engage is becoming a decisive negative factor. The Olmert government now seems serious in wanting to explore a Syrian option. The Syrian leadership is explaining to anyone willing to listen that it cannot be asked to move towards peace with Israel and the concomitant strategic realignment that this would require vis-a-vis Iran and Hizbollah, for instance, without receiving commitments from the US, that it will no longer be subject (to) a regime change and sanctions policy. Syrian sources actually consider that the dialogue with Israel is beginning to move forward seriously, while that with the Bush administration remains blocked.
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