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As Netanyahu takes Israel's helm, Syria skeptical of peace prospects

Syrian diplomats say Damascus is serious about making peace, and hope Washington will lean on Israel's new government.

By Correspondent / March 31, 2009

At the Arab League summit in Qatar on Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that the 'real aim of Israel's recently elected government is against peace.'

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters


Istanbul, Turkey

At the outset of 2009, the prospects for peace between Israel and Syria were looking more promising than they had in a decade.

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In mid-December, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shuttled between two rooms housing Israeli and Syrian delegations in a hotel here to quietly advance peace prospects between the two countries. The Turkish-brokered negotiations, which began in 2007, were the first serious peace moves between Syria and Israel since 2000. A week later, however, Israel invaded Gaza, and Syria broke off the dialogue in protest.

Now, with a right-wing Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu due to be sworn in Tuesday night, Syria is offering a bleak assessment of Mideast peace hopes in the coming months.

The "real aim of Israel's recently elected government is against peace" and the composition of Netanyahu's incoming Cabinet is a "clear, unsurprising message to us," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said during the annual Arab League summit in Qatar on Monday.

What Syria wants

Syria seeks the return of the Golan Heights, a volcanic plateau overlooking northern Galilee that was captured by Israel in 1967. Israel hopes that peace with Syria will isolate Iran, a long-time ally of Syria, as well as ending Syrian support for anti-Israel groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas.

Syria is gradually breaking out of its international isolation. In recent weeks, it has attempted to mend fences with its Arab neighbors and is looking toward a reengagement with the US.

Syrian analysts and diplomats say that Damascus is serious about achieving peace with Israel as the return of the Golan will strengthen the Syrian regime domestically and open up the economy to sorely needed international investment. But, they add, the apparent rightward shift in Israel does not bode well for a resumption of peace talks.

Even if the Netanyahu government agrees to negotiate, any peace deal with Syria has to be put to a national referendum. And Israeli polls show that more than two-thirds of the Israeli public are against handing back the strategic heights. Syria says it is looking to the administration of President Barack Obama to revitalize the Mideast talks and nudge Israel along the peace track.

History of Syrian-Israeli peace talks