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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 15:24 GMT
Analysis: Israel-Syria talks

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Earth mover in Golan Heights in 1999
Talks over the Golan Heights broke down in 2000
There was never much chance President Bashar al-Assad would accept the Israeli invitation to Jerusalem.

In the 1970s, President Sadat of Egypt flew to Israel for face-to-face negotiations which eventually led to the Camp David peace accord.

But Syria is not Egypt, and Mr Assad does not want to be another Sadat.

When the Syrian leader signalled his readiness for peace talks, in a New York Times interview on 1 December, he had something very different in mind.

His overture stemmed partly from a genuine desire to secure the return of the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

But it was also a response to American allegations that Syria has links to terrorism, is developing weapons of mass destruction, and is making trouble in Iraq.

Reviving Israeli-Syrian peace talks would be a way of deflecting sustained American pressure.

Lukewarm

Israel's initial response was decidedly lukewarm.

But by early January, a full month after the New York Times interview, Israel was suddenly abuzz with speculation and debate about a "Syrian option".

President Bush, like Prime Minister Sharon, seems more interested in punishing President Assad than rewarding him
Several government ministers said Israel should welcome the Syrian overture - or at least not respond to it so sourly.

A centrist minister, Tommy Lapid, warned that Israel was in danger of looking like a "peace refusnik".

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accordingly felt he should sound a bit more upbeat.

He made it clear he wanted peace with Syria, but set tough conditions.

The Syrians must first break their links with the Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad - all of which Israel and the United States brand as terrorist.

Is a breakthrough likely?

There is some chance a discreet back-channel may be opened up so that Israelis and Syrians can explore one another's intentions.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Israel accuses Syria of supporting terrorism
The Israeli Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, has revealed there were indirect contacts seven or eight months ago, which were broken off after their existence was made public.

But Israeli analysts think Mr Sharon is only going through the motions.

Preoccupied with a controversial initiative on the Palestinian front, he has no interest in territorial withdrawal on the Golan as well.

Moreover he appears to be under no American pressure to engage with the Syrians.

For the Bush administration, the key issue is which side Syria is on in the "war on terror".

President Bush, like Prime Minister Sharon, seems more interested in punishing President Assad than rewarding him.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Paul Wood
"The Israeli political establishment is divided on this"



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