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France gives boost to Israeli-Syrian talks

French President Sarkozy, in Damascus this week, was also thought to be seeking Syria's help in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

By Correspondent / September 5, 2008

Warmer ties: French President Sarkozy (r.) met with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, on Thursday for a summit in Damascus.

Philippe Wojazer/AP

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Tel Aviv

While the prospect of Israeli-Syrian peace has been given a boost by French President Nicholas Sarkozy's visit to Damascus, any face to face dialogue between the two longtime enemies is likely to wait until new administrations are in place in both Jerusalem and Washington.

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Still, the profile of the indirect Israeli-Syrian peace talks received a major upgrade as Mr. Sarkozy offered to mediate a treaty that could shift the balance of power in the Middle East away from Iran and in favor of the US and its allies.

But even as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that he had sent a six-point peace proposal to Israel and awaited a response, officials in both countries and Middle East analysts concede that substantive progress from the indirect talks hosted by Turkey has been modest at best.

"It will not happen in the present circumstances except as part of a larger reorientation of Syrian policies. For that, you need a US administration that is in the game," says Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a top negotiator in Israeli-Syrian talks during the 1990s. "For now, everyone is keeping the ball in the air and trying to improve their position."

But the very fact that Israel and Syria are engaged in talks just months after they seemed on the brink of a war is something of a breakthrough. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, credited the talks with reducing tensions along Israel's northern border for the first time in several years.

Mr. Assad has already reaped dividends. Sarkozy's visit to attend a mini-Middle East summit this week warms a three-year freeze in the relations between the countries that followed the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Assad, shunned in recent years by the Bush administration, said this week that the US must be involved to reach an agreement that Syria expects will end years of isolation and bring a wave of foreign investment.

"The Syrian side is trying to publicize that there are no big reasons that there can't be an agreement in the near future," says Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. The summit with France, Turkey, and Qatar is "still another point of pressure on the Americans and Israelis that there is a will to see this deal through."

An Israeli-Syrian deal will relieve the threat of war along Israel's northern border, reducing the chance for a flare up with Hezbollah in Lebanon following a month-long war between the sides in 2006, says Ms. Allaf.