Reality check on Middle East talks
Motivation is there, but peace will take time.
Optimism is taking wing in the Middle East: The Israelis and Syrians have been negotiating and Israel and Hamas are two weeks into a cease-fire. But is the Arab-Israeli conflict moving toward a resolution? A closer look at the situation reveals myriad and contradictory interests at work, making it unlikely that there will be a comprehensive peace in the Middle East soon.Skip to next paragraph
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Israel has several motives for reactivating peace talks. Scandal is one: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been greatly weakened by an ongoing corruption scandal. It has prompted members of his own cabinet – specifically foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defense minister Ehud Barak – to call for his resignation. As a result, he is looking for a lifeline. Peace with Syria would overshadow his financial misconduct and become his legacy.
Another possible motive impelling Mr. Olmert to focus on advancing the Syrian track is the Israeli need for image-boosting in the wake of the Gaza crisis. Ever since Hamas won a majority in Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, Israel has looked askance at the state of affairs in the Palestinian territories, particularly in the Hamas stronghold of Gaza.
Hamas's behavior, from firing rockets into Sderot to infiltrating Israel and kidnapping an Israeli soldier, further alarmed Tel Aviv. When Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah in mid-2007, Israel intensified its policy of isolating the strip.
Yet Israeli measures have proved highly controversial. This is especially true of the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza, a form of collective punishment in which much-needed consignments of food, medicine, and fuel have frequently been denied entry. The result is a humanitarian crisis.
That many Israeli policymakers now view an all-out assault on Gaza as inevitable means something will have to be done to offset the image of Israel as aggressor.
For now, Israel has concluded a cease-fire with Hamas, which is expected to lead to a prisoner swap. Yet if a violent showdown with Hamas occurs, Olmert wants to be able to parry criticism of Israel's policy with its Arab neighbors by pointing to his willingness to compromise with Syria.
But what is Syria's stake in all this? Why do the Syrians all of a sudden appear flexible and moderate?
In the past few years, Syria's meddling in Iraq and Lebanon has isolated it: Syria's only ally is Iran. As soon as Olmert indicated that he was willing to entertain the possibility of returning all of the Golan Heights, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad jumped.