Israel and Syria may want peace, but not on Bushs watch

After several false starts over the past few years, Israel and Syria finally seem serious about peace negotiations.

What’s changed?

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad have gone public about their readiness for talks. Turkey, an active and determined mediator, has been accepted by both sides. And in a recent interview with the Qatar-based newspaper al Watan, Assad said Olmert told the Turks he is ready to return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace deal — a claim Olmert did not deny.

But the main difference is the impending change of administration in Washington.

Israel and Syria are preparing for a new U.S. president who may be ready to invest in an Israel-Syria peace deal, primarily to detach Syria from an alliance with Iran.

Meanwhile, Olmert this week returned from an unannounced trip to Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II. Reportedly, the king is trying to push forward peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; speculation arose that Abdullah is concerned that Israel’s talks with Syria might leave the Palestinian negotiation track in the lurch.

Perhaps that’s because the mediation effort in Turkey is moving into high gear. In a lightning visit to Damascus over the weekend, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a detailed meeting with Assad focusing mainly on the question of negotiations with Israel. A Turkish envoy is expected in Jerusalem soon to brief Olmert on that exchange and set up a meeting in Turkey between Israeli and Syrian officials.

If all goes well, the next step would be an Olmert-Assad summit.

An upbeat Assad recently told former President Jimmy Carter that 85 percent of the issues between Syria and Israel already have been resolved.

However, Assad apparently does not believe real progress will be possible as long as President Bush is in the White House. In a range of recent interviews with the Arab media, Syrian officials have said that Assad plans to use the next few months to foster conditions for progress for the next U.S. administration.

Israeli players and analysts agree that Washington holds the key. The only way Syria can be induced to sever its close military, diplomatic and economic ties with Iran is if it receives a better offer from the West — an offer, they say, only the United States can make.

“We could reach an Israel-Syria bilateral deal relatively quickly,” said Alon Liel, the chairman of the Israeli-Syria peace lobby and a retired Israeli diplomat. “The problem is getting Syria to agree on major regional issues like Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinians. And here we need the U.S.”

The Bush White House, however, seems more intent on exposing Syrian duplicity than in helping Assad to make peace with Israel.

The latest Olmert-Assad peace overtures coincided with U.S. congressional hearings on an alleged clandestine Syrian nuclear facility destroyed by an Israeli airstrike last September. Some analysts suggested that the timing of the hearings might have been geared deliberately to torpedo peace efforts. U.S. intelligence suggested that the Syrian reactor was close to becoming operational and would have been able to produce enough plutonium over a year or two for several nuclear bombs.

In choosing the path of negotiations, the Syrians also want to deflect criticism of their suspected involvement in the assassinations of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese politicians. The Syrians are motivated as well by a desire for major Western investment in their country — the sort Egypt received after its 1979 peace deal with Israel.

Still, peacemaking will not be easy, and the big question remains: Will the Syrians be ready to leave the Iranian axis?

In Israel, peace talks create problems, too.

It is not clear whether Olmert would be able to gather majority support for a deal that returns the strategically valuable Golan Heights to Syria. Polls show that a consistent majority of Israelis — approximately 70 percent — oppose withdrawing from the Golan, even in exchange for peace.

While proponents argue that peace with Syria would constitute a major strategic gain — detaching Syria from the Iranian axis, cutting off support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah from Iran and pressuring the Palestinians also to cut a deal with Israel — opponents counter that Syria never genuinely will sever its ties with Iran. They say that if Israel leaves the Golan, it will only be a matter of time before the heights become a forward Iranian base.

The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.