Syrian, Israeli backdoor talks now emerging

The last time there was a peace breakthrough that surprised the world, a few offbeat Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals gathered in 1993 at a country house in Norway and came away with the Oslo Accords.

So when news broke this week in Israel's respected newspaper Haaretz, that Israel and Syria had reached a series of secret understandings, it is no surprise that it sent shock waves through a region often plagued by stalemate and violence.

Officials here are distancing themselves from the meetings that took place between Israelis and Syrians in Europe from September 2004 to June 2006, portraying them as an "academic" exercise. But that doesn't mean Israel isn't open to a deal with Syria.

In fact, some Israelis see Syria as a possible key to undermining Hizbullah's threat. The Israeli losses to Shiite militants in Lebanon last summer prompted Wednesday's resignation of the Israeli army's chief of staff, and is triggering calls for the prime minister and defense minister to follow. Swapping the Golan Heights – for Syria withdrawing support for Hizbullah – might be considered, say Israeli analysts.

And, the very fact that Israelis have been meeting with Syrian representatives is indicative of a willingness on the part of some of the region's players to restart a peace track that has long been viewed as derailed indefinitely.

"If it would be up to us academics, we could have solved it a long time ago. But it is up to the leadership," says Moshe Moaz, an Israeli political scientist and Syria scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Moaz – speaking by telephone from Boston, where he is currently on sabbatical at Harvard University – was involved in several of the meetings that took place, which involved both a combination of academics, officials, and former officials, he says.

"I have the sense that the government was informed, but didn't approve of it," he says.

Reports of a resurrection of the Israeli-Syrian track, which broke off officially around the same time Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations collapsed in the summer of 2000, conjure deeply different reactions – and come at a volatile, precarious time in the region.

Proponents of talking see Damascus as holding the key to reining in Hizbullah, stopping the flow of arms from Iran into Lebanon, and sizing down the tactical might of Hamas, whose most powerful Palestinian figure, Khaled Mashal, resides in the Syrian capital.

And ever since the end of the brutal war last summer in Lebanon, opinion-makers here have been trying to point the nation's compass for compromise in the direction of Syria. Only a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, some analysts say, can prevent Israel from finding itself in another war with Hizbullah.

On the other end of this viewpoint are skeptics, both Israeli and Arab, who say that the powerbrokers are as far away from coming to terms as they were before. Israeli officials, as well as many in the Bush administration, various sources here say, view Syria as a country continuing to sponsor terrorist activities. Therefore, they say, it's a country that should be isolated, not engaged.

Moreover, if the assumed price for a peace deal between Israel and Syria is an Israeli withdrawal from Golan, pollsters show that the cost is still too high in the minds of most Israelis.

Even further, observers here say they find it hard to imagine Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, have anything approaching the political capital necessary for a deal with Syria. Both men have very low approval ratings – one newspaper last week put Mr. Olmert's at 14 percent.

Olmert said in late December that he would consider restarting talks with Syria, but only if Damascus first ended its support for Hizbullah and other anti-Israeli groups.

The resignation Wednesday of Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, coupled with an investigation into Olmert's role in a banking sale, might only bolster the image of Olmert's helm as one too racked with scandal to sell the people on peace.

General Halutz stepped down after dozens of internal inquiries into the month-long Lebanon war found widespread problems in the military's performance.

"The war clearly was mismanaged, and when a war is clearly mismanaged, there is no doubt the chief of staff is responsible," said opposition lawmaker Ran Cohen, a former high-ranking military officer. "The responsibility is shared by him, the prime minister and the defense minister, and sooner or later, they, too, will have to leave."

Some of the specifics of the talks between Israelis and Syrians, as reported in Haaretz, indicated a willingness of Israel to withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights, which it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel later settled the territory, which now has about 16,000 Israelis living on it along with some 18,000 Syrian Druze, and officially annexed the land. The move never received international recognition, but is seen in Israel as part of the national "consensus."

The would-be deal, according to the report, includes the establishment of a large "buffer zone" near the Sea of Galilee, which would be converted into a park for use by Israelis and Syrians.

In opinion surveys, only a minority of Israelis have indicated a willingness to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights. And following the disengagement plan of 2005, the public appears keen to have peace but reluctant to repeat the uprooting of settlers for questionable returns.

Although the Haaretz report indicated that senior officials here had full knowledge of the talks that broke off last summer, Israeli government officials have sharply denied the report.

"We're not questioning that these talks took place," says Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for the prime minister's office. "But there was no official sanctioning or knowledge of these meetings. This was not a back channel that was sanctioned in any way by this prime minister or the last prime minister [Ariel Sharon].

"It's sort of academic, and there are lots of meetings like that," Ms. Eisin adds. "I can list all kinds of academics that have all kind of meetings and can solve all kinds of world problems. But it doesn't have anything to do with officials."

Although Israeli officials have gone to lengths to deny that the contacts were sanctioned at the highest levels, Haaretz is not the only major Israeli paper to suggest that the Israeli-Syrian track may have yet have some electricity running through it.

The Maariv newspaper reported earlier this week that Uzi Arad, the director of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, has floated a plan for an Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese peace that would not require Israel to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights. The concept, dubbed the "Arad Plan," would allow Israel to keep a 150-square-mile strip of the western Golan Heights in exchange for an equivalent piece of land elsewhere.

Mohammed Musleh, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y., says that would be totally unacceptable to the Syrians.

"For there to be a public park that will be used by the Israelis with or without Syrian approval, in violation of Syrian sovereignty, will not be. And Israel has insisted since the start that it must have total control," says Dr. Musleh, a Palestinian academic, during a visit to Jerusalem.

"It's a nonstarter," he says. "This plan also showed that Israel will control sources of the Jordan [River]. But the dispute between Israel on the one hand, and Syrian, Jordan, and Egypt [on the other] over the sources of Jordan, were one of the underlying causes of the war in 1967, because Israel succeeded in diverting the sources of the Jordan River."

Moreover, he says, the demands placed on Syria to come to the table would come at a premium that he doubts Mr. Assad would be willing to pay.

"Syria should distance itself from Iran, on one hand, and Hamas on the other hand. But why should Syria do that in return for nothing? Syria is very much interested in renewing the peace talks with Israel, but neither Washington nor Tel Aviv is interested in peace talks with Syria. The Bush Administration is against any kind of engagement with Syria, and it doesn't want Israel to have any engagement, either."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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