Project Empire: Israel seeks to split Syria and Iran


Richard Moore

“To pull Syria out of the orbit of Iran and return it to the more pro-Western world of Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia would be a major victory for Israel.”

May 22, 2008

Israel Holds Peace Talks With Syria

JERUSALEM — Israel and Syria announced on Wednesday that they were engaged in negotiations for a comprehensive peace treaty through Turkish mediators, a sign that Israel is hoping to halt the growing influence of Iran, Syria’s most important ally, which sponsors the anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

Senior Israeli officials from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office and their Syrian counterparts were in Istanbul on Wednesday, where both groups had been staying separately, at undisclosed locations, since Monday. The mediators shuttled between the two. Syria and Israel have not negotiated this seriously in eight years.

Syria’s motives are clear: it wants to regain the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and to re-establish a relationship with the United States, something it figures it can do through talks with Jerusalem.

For Israel — which has watched the Palestinian group Hamas take over Gaza and gain ground in the West Bank, and the Lebanese group Hezbollah display raw power in Beirut — an effort to pull Syria away from Iran could produce enormous benefits. An announcement on Wednesday of a peace deal that gives Hezbollah the upper hand in Lebanon’s government probably added to Israel’s sense of urgency.

The American government opposed Israeli-Syrian negotiations because they feared that such a negotiation would reward Syria at a time when the United States is seeking to isolate it for its backing of Hezbollah and its meddling in Lebanon, Bush administration and Israeli officials said. The United States yielded when it became clear that Israel was determined to go ahead, they said.

The talks come less than a week after President Bush, speaking to the Israeli Parliament, created a stir by criticizing those who would negotiate with “terrorists and radicals.” Mr. Bush’s remarks have become an issue in the American presidential campaign because they were widely perceived as a rebuke to Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic front-runner.

Turkey, a Muslim country and member of NATO, is a close ally of the United States. It is also Syria’s neighbor and has an interest in securing regional peace.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been working on convening negotiations for some time, an official in his office said, including holding phone conversations with leaders on both sides, and assigning a special envoy to handle the diplomatic back-and-forth. The fact that messages were being exchanged has been public for a couple of months, because of official Syrian statements.

The senior Israeli official said that shortly after Mr. Olmert became prime minister more than a year ago, he went to Turkey and held a long one-on-one meeting with Mr. Erdogan in which it was decided that Turkey would mediate between Israel and Syria.

Efforts to sign a treaty with Syria have often competed with those to build a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians. On Wednesday, Israeli officials tried to make clear that they were not seeking to upstage an important conference opening in Bethlehem — an attempt to make stability easier in the West Bank through economic investment — by saying that both tracks remained vital to them.

While Wednesday’s announcement indicated the first real progress on the Israeli-Syrian front in years, and while both sides have clear goals and motivation for success, there is equally good reason for skepticism about the possibility of success.

Mr. Olmert is politically weak, with a thin parliamentary majority partly dependent on the right-wing religious Shas party. He faces a criminal investigation that many Israelis believe should lead him to step down or refrain from undertaking negotiations with the country’s enemies. Moreover, twice before, under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, similar efforts to sign a deal with Syria failed.

In Israel, two-thirds of the public oppose a return of the Golan Heights to Syria, according to numerous opinion polls, and many strategists and generals have said that giving up the strategic advantage of the Heights in exchange for promises or even written treaties makes no sense.

“In a period in which Iran is on the march and extending its influence from Lebanon to Iraq, for Israel to consider giving up the Golan barrier would be a strategic error of the highest order,” said Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former official and adviser to conservative governments under the Likud Party, which is now the opposition.

“You have to make a cold assessment whether Israel could drive a wedge between Syria and Iran,” Mr. Gold said. “Unfortunately, in the present period, Iran has Syria within its grip to a far greater extent than it did in the 1990s when previous negotiations with the Syrians were held.”

On the other hand, many other Israeli officials and analysts see great benefits for Israel. Syria is a prime sponsor of Hezbollah and provides it with rockets and arms, many from Iran. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have headquarters in Damascus, and Israel will seek, in these negotiations, to have them closed.

To pull Syria out of the orbit of Iran and return it to the more pro-Western world of Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia would be a major victory for Israel.

A real peace treaty with Syria would bring Israel significant advantages in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

After the midday announcement here of the existence of the talks, the Israeli airwaves were filled with officials of the right and center expressing skepticism about the outcome and saying that Israel should not leave the Golan Heights. Politicians of the left, though, expressed hope.

Ran Cohen, a member of Parliament from the dovish Meretz Party, told Israel Radio: “I think this move is very important, very positive. It’s too bad it did not begin a long time ago.”

Others said they feared that the announcement was an attempt to divert attention from Mr. Olmert’s legal troubles.

“I very much welcome any process that can advance peace between us and our neighbors, first and foremost with Syria,” said Eitan Kabel, secretary general of the Labor Party, which is in the government with Mr. Olmert’s Kadima Party. “I very much hope this isn’t some sort of spin whose goal is pull a screen over the situation that the prime minister is in.”

In the past, the sticking point in negotiations has been whether yielding the Golan to the Syrians gave them sovereignty all the way to the waterline of the Sea of Galilee. The Syrians say yes, but the Israelis have said no, fearing the loss of water rights and full access to the lake.

Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Helene Cooper from Washington.

Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Helene Cooper from Washington.