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Suddenly, Syria is hot topic in Israel

Both have sent mixed signals. News that they are in contact is driving talk of peace and war.

June 11, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Talk about Syria is suddenly in the air here, but it is less clear whether the chatter is a harbinger of peace or war -- or only so much noise.

For months, Israel and Syria have sent signals that have alternated between bellicose and calming, leaving Israelis to speculate about the possibility of another summertime war and debate the merits of renewing negotiations with Damascus after a lull of seven years.

Israeli officials are reportedly giving serious thought to reopening talks. Some Israeli reports suggest the two nations have been in contact behind the scenes through intermediaries such as Turkey and Germany.

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz confirmed Saturday that Israel has made use of a secret channel to communicate with Syria, but did not indicate what message was sent.

On Friday, the Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had indicated to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel was prepared to give up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, did not comment on the report but said the premier remained skeptical of the chances for fruitful talks with Syria.

"The prime minister has always said he wants peace with Syria but doesn't think that the present Syrian government wants peace, but rather wants the peace process," Eisin said. "It's always being evaluated."

Last week, after Israeli security officials met to discuss a reported Syrian buildup near the Golan Heights, Olmert issued a statement saying Israel does not seek war with Syria.

"We must avoid miscalculations that are liable to lead to a security deterioration," Olmert said. He said Israel was sending reassuring messages to Syria through various diplomatic channels.

Syrian officials have said they are willing to talk, but expressed doubt that Olmert's government was stable enough to make a deal.

Assad has made overtures since Israel's inconclusive war last summer with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, but Olmert has consistently questioned the Syrian leader's commitment to achieving peace. Many Israelis believe Assad mainly wants to ease international pressure on his government over Damascus' alleged involvement in the 2005 slaying of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister.

Still, current and former Israeli officials and commentators have urged Olmert to test Assad's intentions. Israel engaged in U.S.-brokered negotiations with Assad's late father, Hafez, but they broke down in 2000 over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Israel captured the 444-square-mile plateau in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed it 14 years later in a move not internationally recognized. The Golan Heights is considered to be of strategic importance because of its perch above Israeli valleys. Over the years, more than 15,000 Jews have settled in the area, nearly matching the population of Arab residents, most of whom consider themselves Syrian.

The Yediot Aharonot report, citing an unidentified political source, said President Bush had given Olmert a green light to explore talks with Assad.

But Olmert's aides deny he made such a request, according to news reports Sunday.

The Bush administration, which accuses Damascus of sponsoring terrorism, shuns the nation and has provided no public indication that it favors Israeli-Syrian talks. Olmert is scheduled to meet with Bush in Washington this month where the Syria issue could come up.

The focus on Syria underscores the feeling among Israeli officials that little progress with the Palestinians is likely as long as the Islamic militant group Hamas, which receives support from Damascus, shares power in the Palestinian Authority government and President Mahmoud Abbas remains politically weak.

Advocates of talks with Assad say Israel could gain much if negotiations succeed, in large part because the Syrian leader has a government that can be held to account. Syria provides weapons and support to Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel has said Syria must end its support for armed groups to prove it wants peace.

Syria is also allied with Iran, and engagement could help loosen those ties, some analysts say.

"A diplomatic process with Syria would change the balance on three fronts dramatically and immediately," Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said.

But skeptics say Assad believes he has a stronger hand in the aftermath of Israel's war with Hezbollah, which ended with a cease-fire that left many Israelis feeling defeated. Under such conditions, talks would serve as little more than a way for Olmert to try to bolster his domestic standing by creating an impression of diplomatic movement, some critics say.

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