Page last updated at 16:29 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 17:29 UK

A new Israel-Syria peace push?

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Israeli army officers looking towards Syria from the Mount Bental observation post in the Golan Heights
The Golan Heights are an invaluable vantage point for whoever holds them

The fact that both Israel and Syria have publicly acknowledged their indirect talks using Turkish mediation is of significance in itself.

This brings into the open a process that has been under way behind the scenes for some months and it promises the first serious attempt at an Israel-Syrian peace deal since US-brokered efforts failed eight years ago.

Syria of course is eager to get back the Golan Heights which were captured by Israel in 1967.

The Golan - a rocky escarpment rising sharply on the Israeli side and extending into a wide plain in the direction of the Syrian capital, Damascus - remains a vital piece of strategic real-estate.

Even in this age of long-range missiles and precision-guided munitions, it provides an invaluable vantage point for whoever holds it.

Diplomatic spluttering

Prior to 1967 Syrian guns on the heights could easily target farming communities in Israel below.

Detailed Golan map

Possession of the Golan gives Israel vital early-warning of Syrian troop movements and would enable it to counter any attack deep inside Syrian territory.

Israel annexed the Golan Heights and it has built settlements there. But past Israeli prime ministers have raised the prospect of withdrawing back to the pre-1967 war frontier.

This was certainly the view of Yitzhak Rabin who made it clear to the Syrians in 1993 that in return for an acceptable peace agreement Israel would return to the 4 June 1967 lines.

Subsequent Israeli governments got cold feet and the diplomatic process spluttered out.

But in the aftermath of Israel's Lebanon war in 2006 both Israel and Syria began to make a reassessment and tentatively to explore what kind of a deal might be on offer.

So Syria wants its land back. But it also may see such a deal as enabling it to escape its virtual isolation in the Arab world and improve its highly strained relationship with Washington.

Syria is now widely seen by its former Arab friends as a stalking horse for the Iranians.

It is not clear how far Damascus would be willing to rethink its ties to Tehran. Nor is it clear exactly what it might want from the Americans.

Presumably it would expect economic as well as diplomatic benefits from a peace deal. What is crystal clear is that the Syrians want a strong US involvement in the process.

Problems ahead

For Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, beset by scandals at home, a Syrian peace deal would be something of a rabbit pulled from the diplomatic hat.

If there is a renewal of the Syrian peace track, what about that with the Palestinians?

Quite apart from the advantages of a formal peace treaty with Syria, he would hope for some sort of pay-off in terms of stability on Israel's border with Lebanon too, where Syria retains an important political influence.

The path ahead is strewn with problems - security arrangements and water rights are just two key areas that must be resolved.

How far will demilitarised zones be extended on either side of the border? Over what time period would Israel agree to dismantle its settlements?

An Israeli government would have to win both parliamentary and public support for giving back the Golan.

Commitments have been made in the past to submit the question to a referendum and Israeli opinion is far from won over.

If there is a renewal of the Syrian peace track, what about that with the Palestinians? How might an explosion of tension in Gaza affect the ongoing discussions between Israel and Syria?

For now there are many questions and few answers. What is clear is that it is all going to take time.

But if all goes well - and that is a very big "if" - this could prove to be an unexpected diplomatic present for the next occupant of the White House who just might come into office next January with a Syria-Israel peace deal in the offing.

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