This week sees the beginning of Israel and Syria’s indirect peace talks in Turkey. The talks follow an eight year freeze but is Wednesday’s announcement too good to be true?
The agreement in Lebanon ended 18 months of political deadlock, archenemies Israel and Syria resumed negotiations which collapsed in 2000. However, hopes for Syrian-Israeli peace should not be set too high.
The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed the most enthusiasm and spoke of the talks as a ‘historic breakthrough’. His country and Syria have been technically in a state of war for the past sixty years. They have actually fought three wars, the last was in 1973.
The peace talks are being described as “indirect” because the representatives of both countries sat in separate rooms for the negotiations. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz during these “indirect” talks Turkish mediators would shuttle back and forth between the two rooms.
The talks have resulted in some clear demands. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights (which Israel captured in 1967 during the Six-Day War.) Whilst Israel wants Syria to cut off all ties with Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Indeed, both demands could be described as ‘the obstacles for peace in a nutshell’. Or, as the title of a comment in Haaretz put it ominously, ‘where it could all fall apart’.
Abandoned church, Golan Heights, Israel.
Sea of Galilee
In 2000 talks failed because both parties disagreed about how far Israel had to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Damascus wanted a full withdrawal, while Israel wanted to use an earlier border with Syria. The difference was only a few hundred meters, but it would have denied Syria direct access to the Sea of Galilee. This is an important drinking water supply and therefore an issue not to be taken too lightly, especially in a region that suffers from water shortages.
The question is whether Olmert can ever meet this demand. The Golan Heights are home to thousands of settlers and are seen as a strategic buffer zone against attacks from archenemy Syria. A television poll in Israel found that 70 percent of Israelis were opposed to giving back the Golan Heights.
Political analysts state that the biggest problem relates to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, suggesting that any territorial concessions could result in the collapse of the government. Mr Olmert is currently facing a police interrogation on suspicion of taking bribes from an American businessman in exchange for political favours.
Likewise, Israel has said in the past that it will only negotiate with Damascus if it cuts off all ties with Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nevertheless, Damascus has not made any comment that suggests it will give up it’s ties before or during the negotiations.
So why did the talks start? Mr Olmert commented that painful concessions will have to be made, but that it is always better to ‘talk than to shoot’. According to critics in his own country, however, the allegations against Mr Olmert are the reason for his peace efforts.
Mr Olmert is being accused of diverting attention from his internal problems. The prime minister went public with the peace talks only a few days before the police interrogation. Mr Olmert stated, “peacemaking is the crowning glory of my work, not the rumours about me that have filled the country.”
Syria also has a lot to gain from negotiations. Damascus is politically and economically isolated. President Bush’s decision to include Syria in the ‘axis of evil’ is one reason, the Syrian government being regarded with suspicion in parts of the Arab world (due to its friendship with Iran) is another.
Syria is desperately trying to modernize it’s economy which needs foreign investors. A different relationship with the US and the Arab countries would certainly help boost investments. The lukewarm comments of the current American government on the Syrian-Israeli negotiations are not very promising. This government, however, will not last forever.
Syria may already be looking forward to the next American presidency. With new friends in the West, Syria might even consider giving up it’s strategic alliance with Iran. At the very least there will be less need to maintain close ties with their Islamocratic neighbour.
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