GOOD NEWS ON THE GOLAN FRONT? SYRIAN-ISRAELI PEACE FEELERS AND WHAT THEY MEAN
"Israel has reportedly offered to withdraw from the Golan Heights, the territory conquered by its forces in the 1967 war, in return for full peace with Syria.
The offer was disclosed yesterday by Buthaina -Shaaban, a Syrian cabinet minister, who said the deal was floated by Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, in talks with the Turkish -government. She told al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel: "Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions, on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria."
Crucially, the Syrian claims were not denied by the Israeli government. Mr Olmert's spokesman dec-lined to comment directly but said: "The Israeli government's position was always clear and has been reiterated on many occasions. Israel seeks peace with Syria. Israel is interested in peace with Syria. The Syrians understand what Israeli expectations are, and Israel understands what the Syrian expectations are."
Israel has long demanded that Syria cut its ties with two of the Jewish state's most committed and potent enemies: Hizbollah, the -Lebanese Shia group, and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group. The country's armed forces fought a war against Hizbollah as recently as 2006 and it continues to trade almost daily attacks with Hamas, which took control of the Gaza Strip last year.
Israel believes that Damascus not only provides political cover for the two groups - Hamas's leader is based in the Syrian capital - but also supplies arms and gives training to the fighters of Hamas and Hizbollah.
But, with the likelihood of a peace agreement with the Palestinians this year receding, Mr Olmert might find it useful to test the waters of a Syrian deal.
There have been reports in recent weeks of secret talks, although Syria has always said negotiations must be public. Damascus insists that Israel should agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a condition for negotiations.
US-brokered talks between the sides on the return of the Heights broke down in 2000. The US has not encouraged a renewal of talks, seeking instead to isolate Syria".
"Israel hints at Golan deal for Syrian Peace", The Financial Times, 24 April 2008, in www.ft.com
The report in today's FT, could also been seen in much of the quality international press, including AFP, Haaretz, the New York Times, Bloomberg, the BBC, as well as the Beirut Daily Star. What exactly does it mean? Especially since such a short time earlier, we were all treated to stories about the possibility of an outbreak of a new war between Syria and Israel. Well first of all, we can now, all of us, throw safely into the rubbish bin, precisely those stories (I of course threw them into the rubbish bin, quite awhile ago...). Second, the reports are I would venture 'real', in the sense that Israeli PM Olmert is in fact considering the possibility of seriously pursuing peace negotiations with Damascus. Of course, this option has been mulled over by various, admittedly marginal elements in the Israeli establishment, since the debacle of the Lebanon War of the summer of 2006. Until now, the quite evident, de facto 'verbotem', on any such talks by the Bush Regime, made any realistic possibility of such talks commencing, much less going somewhere a nullity. Now however, either because of the difficulties that Tel Aviv is experiencing on other fronts, such as the Gaza Strip, as well as the deadlock over negotiations with PA President Abbas, or, because time is running out for the American Administration, Olmert, et. al., appear to be more inclined to allow for public discussion of the idea of a peace transaction with Syria. Something which was, even six months ago, quite impossible due to Washington's obtuseness. However, while this public 'pour parler' is of course an improvement on the prior situation, will it in fact result in anything of a concrete nature occurring in the near future? Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely. It is quite impossible that Olmert will be willing to completely break ranks with the Americans and open up discussion with the Assad Regime seul. And, as the American academic and Syrian expert, Joshua Landis, notes in quoting an unnamed expert, any peace deal between the two parties would require American support, both diplomatic, and, more importantly from the Israeli perspective financial. Perhaps up to twenty billion dollars (see: www.syriacomment.com). Of course, some American ideologues of the 'neo-conservative' variety will argue against any such agreement, for two reasons: one) the terms that Damascus is offering are illusory; two) that the Assad Regime is 'illegitimate', and, should not be offered support, even indirectly by the Israelis or the Americans. The logic of either objection to my mind is rather nonsensical: a) we will never know how illusory is Damascus's terms are, except if we engage the same in real pour parlers, and, then find out! b) the regime of Assad Fils, is no more and certainly no less, 'legitimate', 'Democratic',than say the neighboring regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, most of the Gulf States, much less Iraq...Except of course that women can drive and vote in Syria, and Christians can freely and safely go to church and wear crosses, which is not something that can be said about say, Saudi Arabia....This is not of course to make Assad Fils, into a icon of freedom and Democracy. It is evidently the case that he is neither of these things. However, the point is quite simple and to my mind self-evident (not unfortunately so in official Washington): diplomatically speaking there is not much in the way of low hanging fruit in the Near East at the moment. Syria is the only possible exception to this. To not at the very least, attempt to in effect 'turn' Syria, from its alliances with Persia, Hezbollah and Hamas, in return for the Golan Heights, is the very mid-summer of madness. Unfortunately it would appear to be the case that is what will in fact happen once again. Due mostly to American closemindedness and stupidity.