Syria, Israel talk about talking peace

Israel and Syria have squabbled over the strategic Golan Heights (photo) for decades. So, when the two arch foes publically acknowledged Turkish-mediated peace negotiations, it raised eyebrows across the globe.


Technically, the two countries are still at war, locked in bitter squabble for a strategic rocky escarpment that has hindered peace deals for decades. So when Israel and Syria publicly announced they were conducting indirect peace negotiations with Turkish mediation late Wednesday, it made instant headlines across the world.

In coordinated statements, Israel and Syria declared they had begun a dialogue “with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace" and that the negotiators were already in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

Syria has officially been “at war” with Israel since the country’s birth in 1948. Tensions between the two countries escalated in 1967, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plot of land that provides an unparalleled military vantage point over Syrian and Israeli territories.

The fact that Israel and Syria were negotiating behind the scenes though was not surprising news. Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad revealed that Turkey had passed on a message from Israel expressing its readiness to swap the Golan Heights for peace. Past Israeli presidents have declared that Israel was ready to reach an “acceptable peace agreement” with its eastern Arab neighbor.

The significance of Wednesday’s announcement, according to most Middle East experts, was the coordinated public declarations from arch foes.

“This is a big leap,” said Yossi Mekelberg, head of international relations at Regents College and an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House. “There’s always a problem about when to go public. It’s either because both sides are looking for public support or because they are close to an agreement.”

‘The timing has raised a few eyebrows’

If shoring public support was the underlining motive for the announcement, it could not have come at a trickier time – for Israelis, the Arab world, as well as the broader international community.

Reporting for FRANCE 24 from Jerusalem, Annette Young noted that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went public just two days before he is set to face a police interrogation into corruption charges.

“The timing has raised a few eyebrows here,” said Young. “A lot of people are saying that it’s more than just a coincidence that these two events are happening within a few days of one another.” (see video)

Coming just days after US President George Bush returned from a Mideast trip, the announcement received a tepid response from Washington.

“We would welcome any steps that might lead to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday. But she was careful to stress that the Israeli-Palestinian talks, jumpstarted at the Annapolis conference last year, was "the most mature track."

The Bush administration has been traditionally reluctant to make diplomatic overtures to Damascus. Western diplomats say Syria’s inclusion at Annapolis came only after concerted international pressure.

“I think this is a loss of prestige for the US,” said Mekelberg, referring to Turkey’s critical role in the Israeli-Syrian talks. “If there is a deal at these talks, it would be a Middle East peace made in the Middle East.”

Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas in the mix

Wednesday’s announcement came just as the Arab League was hammering out a peace deal between rival Lebanese factions that saw Israel’s northern neighbour hovering precariously on the brink of a civil war.

The recent crisis was sparked by Hezbollah’s response to Lebanese government attempts to control the Shia group.

While the current talks may involve Israel and Syria, Mideast experts note that a deal between the two countries hinges on regional players and the militant groups they support.

In recent times, Syria has fallen from grace among Arab Sunni nations - such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt – over its support for Hezbollah, which is predominantly backed by Shia Iran.

Mekelberg notes that a comprehensive deal for Israel could also include the contentious issue of Hamas’ offices based in Damascus. While Hamas is based out of the Gaza Strip, which it controls, the Damascus office provides the Islamist group with a vital international link.

A comprehensive peace, experts warn, would require comprehensive compromises from all sides. And that, as peace negotiators admit, has been the greatest stumbling bloc for a lasting Middle East peace deal.

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