Between Syria and Israel, a strategic breakthrough for peace is possible

Nearly unnoticed amid the justified global furor over North Korea's nuclear test is that Syria has been flashing peace signals at Israel and the United States. It is unwise to ignore them.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to be doing just this, however, when she failed on a recent trip in the region to visit Damascus, often a crucial stop on past American emissaries' Middle East peace tours.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a BBC interviewer last week that Syria was prepared to return to the peace table with Israel, insisting that he needed an "impartial" umpire, perhaps from the European Union (EU). But he said the Bush administration couldn't play this role, because the US doesn't have "the will or vision" to pursue peace in the Middle East, nor is there concrete US-Syria dialogue.

Shimon Peres, Israel's vice premier and veteran statesman, responded with a public invitation to Mr. Assad to "come to Jerusalem and talk," as President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had in 1977. In so doing, Sadat initiated the process that led Egypt and Israel to sign a peace treaty in 1979.

Arab commentators wondered if, as Beirut's Daily Star editorialist put it, Mr. Peres was "trying to breathe life into a facet of the Arab-Israel peace process that his boss, [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert has tried to smother" – or whether he was trying to make "Assad look intransigent by making him an offer he couldn't accept." Sadat, after all, had accepted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's invitation only after Sadat himself had offered to come. Assad hasn't so offered.

To the BBC's direct question as to whether Israel and Syria could live side by side in peace, accepting each other's existence, Assad responded with an emphatic "Yes."

Virtually all Arab and Muslim leaders – whether regarded in Washington as "radical," like Assad, or "moderate," like King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – share Assad's perception that the Bush administration is seriously biased in Israel's favor, and that it will make no serious move without Jerusalem's assent.

Although less publicly defiant toward the West than the leaders of "axis of evil" members Iran and North Korea, Assad, like them, is driven by his relative diplomatic isolation. This leads him to warn his people and other Arab regimes that war with his main enemy – in Syria's case, Israel – can't be ruled out.

The inconclusive results of this summer's destructive 34-day war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah (an ally of Iran and Syria), and the widespread opinion in the Middle East that it was a proxy war between the US and Iran, feeds this state of mind. Assad told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa that Israel might attack at any time, backed militarily by the United States.

It's not difficult to agree with Israelis such as Peres who urge Mr. Olmert to stop rejecting Syrian overtures outright. It would also help if Olmert reversed his declaration that returning Syria's Golan Heights, captured in 1967, is an "impossibility." Reclaiming that land is Syria's indispensable goal, one it nearly achieved when President Clinton umpired direct peace talks in 2000 between Syria and Israel at Shepherdstown, W.Va., that eventually failed.

Former Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu understood that a peace deal with Syria to return the Golan, (where UN observers have successfully watched over a cease-fire since 1973), would be a strategic breakthrough. It could help bring peace to other Arab-Israeli fronts, including the one created by Israel's nearly 40-year occupation of the West Bank.

Many US and some European analysts agree with the Israeli view that Iran, possibly seeking nuclear weapons, is Israel's most dangerous enemy. If so, ending Syria's alliance with Tehran would benefit Israel and the US.

This can't be achieved by refusing to talk with Damascus. There's plenty to talk about: Turning August's Lebanese-Israeli cease-fire into durable peace, and ending Syrian and Iranian arms support for Hizbullah and the Islamist leaders of Hamas. Hamas, which came to power in elections last January in Gaza and the West Bank, is now deprived of Western aid – a penalty due to Hamas's refusal to formally recognize the state of Israel. This lack of aid is bringing intense suffering to ordinary Palestinians.

Like its now nuclear-armed commercial partner, North Korea, which has supplied Syria and Iran with missile systems, Syria feels surrounded. It is squeezed between Israel, American forces in Iraq, and a Lebanese government at odds with Damascus over suspected Syrian involvement in the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Instead of shunning Syria, the Bush administration should reengage with Damascus. If properly managed, this could nudge Israel's Olmert, or his possible successor, toward successfully concluding peace with Syria. It's worth trying.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East for more than 40 years. His latest book is "An Alliance Against Babylon: the US, Israel, and Iraq."

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