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.
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Negotiations between Syria and Israel began in 1991 with the US-convened Madrid peace conference. They broke off in early 1996 shortly before Netanyahu was first elected prime minister. There were no official peace talks during Netanyahu's three years in office, although he held a private dialogue with Damascus using an American interlocutor. Direct peace talks resumed at the end of 1999 under the Israeli premiership of Ehud Barak but foundered once more in March 2000.Skip to next paragraph
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According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the Syrian and Israeli delegations were based in separate hotels in Istanbul during the first round with their Turkish hosts staying in a third and shuttling in between. In the second and third rounds, the Turkish mediators stayed alternatively with the Syrian and Israeli delegations. By the time of the fifth and final session in December, the delegations were in the same hotel. Erdogan relayed messages between his Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who were in separate rooms, and by phone to Assad in Damascus.
It is unclear how much was agreed during last year's talks. Some Syrian analysts maintain that the indirect talks were a backward step from the peace process of the 1990s, which involved face-to-face negotiations among top-rank delegations. Reportedly much was agreed during those earlier rounds, even – according to one Syrian analyst – details such as the number of phone and fax lines for the future Israeli embassy in Damascus.
'Things are different' with Obama
Still, perhaps the main significance of the Turkish-brokered negotiations was keeping the notion of peace alive given the Bush administration's lack of enthusiasm for promoting the Israeli-Syrian track during its final months in office.
"Now with Obama, things are different," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst who has been involved in track II Syria-US talks. "I think that it is time for the Americans to walk into the peace talks, and sponsor some international conference for peace ... where the Golan issue is given high priority on everyone's agenda."
The Obama administration is still formulating its Middle East policy agenda. George Mitchell, the Obama administration's point man on the Mideast, is expected in the next two weeks to begin putting proposals into action once he has finished building his team.
US officials with insights into the administration's thinking on the Mideast say that Obama is serious about striking peace between Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians, but question whether the parties themselves are ready to make the necessary commitments for peace. They warn that Obama is being pressured to focus on the domestic economy, not foreign policy, and will not waste time pushing for Mideast peace if the Israelis and Arabs procrastinate.