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

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    Warmer ties: French President Sarkozy (r.) met with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, on Thursday for a summit in Damascus.
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    Disputed Golan: Syria wants the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in return for a peace deal with Israel.
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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.

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.

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"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.

She added, however, that the US and Israel shouldn't expect a radical realignment of Syria's ties with Iran. Syria is unlikely to cut ties with Hamas, as well. "It is naive to image that just because Israel and Syria sign a peace deal the relations between Syria and Iran to come to a standstill."

Israel, concerned about Iran's growing influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, hopes that diplomatic and economic ties with Syria – which aids both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – will undermine Tehran's influence.

But after Mr. Olmert said last month he planned to resign because of numerous corruption investigations against him, the Syrians are awaiting a new Israeli government with enough political capital to give back all of the Golan Heights – which was seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and which a majority of Israelis oppose giving back.

Indeed, there is legislation making its way through the Israeli parliament to require a special majority to give back the Golan, which was de facto annexed by Israel in 1982.

"If there is one move capable of changing the dynamics in the entire region, it's an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty," wrote Ari Shavit, a commentator in the Haaretz newspaper. "Such an agreement will set into motion a positive strategic change: It will isolate Hezbollah, make it more difficult for Hamas, threaten Iran, and provide an important tail wind for moderate forces in the Sunni Arab world."

Syria is considered a major linchpin along with the Palestinians on the way toward a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A return of the Golan – a mostly barren plateau that looks out to northern Israel and drops to the banks of Israel's one natural water reservoir – would fulfill one of the conditions of an land-for-peace proposal by the Arab League.

The major stumbling block in the talks has been resolving a dispute over where the international border should run in relation to the Sea of Galilee and whether the Syrians should have access. The talks also focus on a security buffer between the two countries armies, normalizing ties, and water rights.

The next milestone for the talks would be for the sides to move to the face to face negotiations, the first since the round of talks in Shepherdstown, W.V., in 2000. In those failed negotiations, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Assad's late father, Hafez, were thought to be a few hundred feet away on a common border that would have sealed an accord.

"The blueprint is known. [Israeli President Shimon Peres] said the other day. You need 24 hours to sign," says Moshe Maoz, a political science professor from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The question is whether the parties are ready."

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