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.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
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.'

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

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

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.

In 2007, Turkey, an emerging regional heavyweight, stepped in to broker a series of indirect negotiations last year between Syria and Israel.

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.

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