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Israeli doubts over Syria peace

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Jerusalem

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a busy man on Sunday. As the chief intermediary between Israel and Syria he held separate talks with both the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria's Assad is welcomed in Paris by French President Sarkozy
Assad may be pushing talks with Israel as a way out of diplomatic isolation

All three men were in Paris for the launch of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean.

But the day was perhaps of greater significance as marking a restoration of ties between Paris and Damascus and the start of a process that may well end Syria's isolation.

The Israel-Syria peace process, thanks in large part to Turkey's efforts, is back on track. But where is it heading? And how long is the road ahead?

The central issue is the fate of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

I took a brief trip up to the southern Golan, starting at the thermal springs in Hamat Gader. This area, close to the Jordanian border, was held by Syria up until the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Today the resort boasts hot springs, swimming pools and even a small zoo - it is famous for its crocodiles - and is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Israel.

Nobody in their right mind in Israel, whether he is a right-winger or a left-winger, will agree to the idea that you have to step-down from the Golan Heights in order to see there the next morning an Iranian intelligence-gathering operation or missile launchers
Ehud Yaari
Israeli TV commentator

Hamat Gader is a peculiar case. It was initially designated as Israeli territory but was taken by Syria in 1948 and then re-occupied by Israel in 1967. Unlike the Golan proper the Israelis maintain that this small parcel of land has always been part of Israel.

But whatever the peculiarities of Hamat Gader's history it exemplifies what the broader Golan has become: Israel's play-ground. There are resorts, hiking trails, pony-trekking and a variety of other activities.

In addition, some 20,000 Israelis live on the plateau, much of which is rich agricultural land.

And if opinion polls are anything to go by then few people seem to want to give up the Golan.

'Driven by Damascus'

"Nobody in their right mind in Israel, whether he is a right-winger or a left-winger, will agree to the idea that you have to step-down from the Golan Heights in order to see there the next morning an Iranian intelligence-gathering operation or missile launchers," Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari told me.

"It's not going to work."

Israeli troops on exercises in the Golan Heights

Indeed Mr Yaari, who is the Middle East expert for one of Israel's main TV channels and is very well connected in the region, argues that the peace process with Syria is to a large extent driven by short-term considerations in Damascus.

"The main purpose of the negotiations so far is to make it easy for President Assad not to retaliate for the Israelis knocking out his nuclear reactor at Kibar on the Euphrates on 6 September 2007."

"By having negotiations going on you avoid a flare-up or at least an escalation along the border and that's very important," he said.

But Mr Yaari agrees that beyond this the Syrians have decided that it is worth exploring how they might recover the Golan Heights.

Alon Liel is a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry. He has been involved in unofficial behind-the-scenes talks with the Syrians and is one of Israel's chief advocates of a deal over the Golan.

He is convinced that President Assad wants peace.

"Somewhere in 2004, or maybe even before, somebody in Syria decided that they were going in the wrong direction and that the future of Syria is not with Iran but with the West," he told me at a café just outside Jerusalem.

"This is my guess - because what we are seeing is not only a wish for Syria to regain the sovereignty of the Golan Heights. There is also a major effort on behalf of Syria to break the isolation that the West has imposed upon them."

Alliance with Iran

Viewed in this light the Euro-Mediterranean summit in Paris represents a significant first step for Mr Assad.

Alon Liel is emphatic. The peace process, he argues, is being driven from Damascus not from Jerusalem.

I really, really believe that if we bring Syria into the Egyptian-Jordanian family... this is much more import to the security of Israel than keeping this wonderful piece of land
Alon Liel
Former director general, Israeli foreign ministry

But are Israel and Syria approaching these talks with the same agenda?

Professor Shlomo Avineri, another former head of Israel's foreign ministry, thinks not.

"For the Syrians, there is only one agenda - the Golan Heights," he said.

"For the Israelis there is clearly the Golan Heights, but the Israelis also have other agendas, like the Syrian involvement in Lebanon in support of Hezbollah, Syrian support for Hamas in Gaza and the Syrian-Iranian relationship."

"And the Syrians are not interested in talking about that. So I can see here a deep gap not just in positions but also in what the negotiations are going to be about."

So how likely is it that Syria would be willing to break with its foreign policy of the past 20 years or so and end its close alliance with Iran?

Mr Avineri believes this is unlikely because of Syria's weak position in the region.

"Syria is a very isolated regime in the Arab world," he said.

"Syria is very much in the corner of the Arab consensus and I think the Syrian-Iranian relationship is very fundamental to the present regime in Damascus. That's why the Syrians are not going to be ready to give it up, even in return for the Golan Heights."

Deal with America

Ehud Yaari is also sceptical about Syria's intentions.

He agreed that many of the things that Syria wants - including an end to its isolation and a package of economic incentives - are not in Israel's gift but can only come from the Americans.

"The Syrians are very explicit about this. They are not going to move towards a deal with Israel - even if a deal was possible - unless they have the main deal with the United States. President Assad himself is quite explicit about this."

For the moment the Americans seem to be watching from the side-lines.

So is Syria ready and willing to switch camps? Ehud Yaari said he has seen some movement:

"I think in Syria there is a serious debate whether they have peace with Israel, with its advantages - including the opening to the West and to the US. But is that attractive enough to drop what they see as the very cosy arrangement that they have with the Iranians, with Hezbollah, and so on?

"Different Syrians within the regime will give you different answers," he concluded. "And the jury is still out."

Few people in Israel really see this process moving forward quickly.

Alon Liel, who is actively campaigning to move the peace process with Syria higher up the agenda, says that Israelis have to get over decades of conventional thinking and see the broader picture.

"We used to hear always from our generals that the Golan Heights because of its location is of great security importance," he said.

"But I'm a diplomat, and I see things more from the political aspect."

"I really, really believe that if we bring Syria into the Egyptian-Jordanian family and maybe as a result of it Lebanon too, and maybe as a result of that establish a Palestinian state, this is much more important to the security of Israel than keeping this wonderful piece of land."




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