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Op-Ed

What Syrian-Israeli Talks Mean

Hasan Abu Nimah, Jordan Times, Amman, Jordan, June 2, 2008

Some analysts, according to Reuters, doubt that any results would emerge from the current talks before President Bush has left office.

There was a surprise announcement last month that Syrians and Israelis started indirect peace negotiations under Turkish patronage in Istanbul. That was confirmed in both countries' capitals soon afterwards.

Almost simultaneously, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that the two sides had already reached understanding as a result of secret talks in Europe two years earlier, between September 2004 and July 2006, and that the two sides would sign an agreement of principles, and once they had fulfilled their commitments, a peace agreement would be signed.

The terms include Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967, without agreement on a timetable for the withdrawal. Syria demanded five years while Israel demanded 15.

Although Syrian sovereignty would be acknowledged on the evacuated land, the agreement includes the establishment of a public park on a "significant area of the Golan" for joint Syrian-Israeli use, but the Israeli presence there "will not be dependent on Syrian approval."

The agreement, described as an unsigned "non-paper" also speaks of a demilitarized zone on the Golan; a buffer zone in between the two sides on the basis of a ratio of 1:4 (in terms of territory) in Israel's favor; and Israeli control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and the Lake Kinneret.

Ha'aretz published on May 21 a summary of the agreement in an article by Akiva Eldar, with a link to the full text.

If this is what Israel means by withdrawal from all the Golan Heights, then one should understand the leaks, toward the end of April via the Turkish prime minister, in that light.

The Syrian Arabic daily, Al Watan, revealed on April 23 that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had informed the Syrian president that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was prepared to evacuate the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement. Conditions on Syria, such as ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and scaling down relations with Iran had always been linked to such offers.

Knowing Israeli negotiating style, it was hard to take the offer at face value. Israel would never expose its negotiating cards in advance; they never did that before. Quite the opposite, the Israelis negotiate hardest on matters they would normally be willing to concede, in order to help their position with respect to more difficult issues.

But if the recent Olmert offer was based on the so-called non-paper, and if the Istanbul talks are meant to proceed on that basis, the matter should be different, although it is hard to believe that Syria would consider such an arrangement as basis for a final settlement.

Replacing the occupation with a shared public park, with no Syrian control on access, renders any claim of sovereignty worthless.

Olmert was criticized at home for the Syrian talks surprise. Some political leaders accused him of trying to divert attention from the criminal investigation of his controversial financial deals, which casts doubt on his ability as well as his authority to make such big decisions at such a crucial turn—when the investigation might push him out of office.

One may add to that the possibility that the Syrian opening could also be intended to serve as a cover for the apparent failure of the Palestinian track, despite much American promise and "mild" persuasion on Israel to make any kind of face-saving gesture.

Israel did not offer anything at all. Olmert, since Annapolis and before, was under severe pressure not to even talk about final status issues with anyone. Defiant settlement activity has also continued full-scale. It is likely, therefore, that opening a new track with the Syrians, with talks that could drag on endlessly and without much commitment on the part of the Israelis, may offer a convenient, though temporary distraction.

The response from Washington has already been lukewarm, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice affirming that the Palestinian-Israeli is "the most mature track," but without expressing explicit discouragement. The question is whether Washington is really prepared to allow Syria, through engagement with Israel in a renewed role in the stalled peace process, to place itself in a better position internationally. Probably the Syrians see the renewed talks—even if they hold little or no promise—as an exit for them as well.

The Doha agreement among the conflicting Lebanese factions was another development in Syria's favor, with its allies in Lebanon gaining good ground as a result. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, supposed to be on the opposing side, included in a statement at the brief ceremony announcing the agreement a specific but a noteworthy call for improving the "brotherly relations" with Syria. Both developments could lead to a substantial reduction of the diplomatic pressure on Syria, but one needs to know if that is acceptable to Washington at this stage.

Some analysts, according to Reuters, doubt that any results would emerge from the current talks before President Bush has left office.

Although leaks about secret Syrian-Israeli talks have been circulating for a few years, the truth is that official negotiations have been held on and off between the two sides since Madrid in 1991, but no progress was ever made. Renewed talks always had to start right from the beginning, as probably they will do this time.

There is no doubt that serious talks between the two sides with the objective of reaching a settlement would be a major breakthrough. It is an important step that will contribute substantially to peace and stability in the region, and will have positive effect on the other tracks. But, and most unfortunately, the new enterprise is surrounded by dubious signs and uncertain circumstances.

Maybe the time has finally come for a miracle, which will be very warmly welcome.

Hasan Abu Nimah is Jordan's former ambassador to the United Nations. This article from the Jordan Times is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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