November 29, 2007
Will Annapolis momentum spur a regional thaw?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)While no overt Israeli-Saudi contacts have been made, Israel and Syria have been engaged in a public on-again, off-again peace process since the early 1990s.
Four Israeli prime ministers -- Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak -- made serious efforts to make peace with Syria.
Over the past few years, Syrian President Bashar Assad has made repeated peace overtures, but he has been unwilling to commit himself to a break with Iran and its terrorist proxies.
Olmert, for his part, has not taken Assad's overtures seriously, partly because the Bush administration made clear it was not interested in making overtures to a Syrian regime it considers hostile to its regional goals, analysts say.
In early September, however, a new element entered the Israel-Syria equation: the apparent bombing by Israel of a suspected nuclear weapons facility in the Syria desert.
Since then, Israeli intelligence experts say Assad has shown newfound interest in accommodation and moderation.
Now, both Olmert and Defense Minister Barak are insisting it is time to explore seriously peace prospects with Syria. Most pundits believe the outcome will depend on whether the United States is prepared to promise Assad significant diplomatic and economic guarantees if he breaks with Iran.
So far, the Bush administration has offered no sign it is ready to make that promise.
Russia, however, reportedly is planning a follow-up to Annapolis in Moscow, where the main focus would be the Israel-Syria track.
Some Israeli analysts dismiss this as Russian jockeying for position on the international stage. Others argue it creates an opportunity that should not be dismissed peremptorily.
"You have a better chance of success [with the Syrians] than with the Palestinians because you are dealing with a viable regime, albeit a repugnant one," said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad analyst and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site Bitterlemons.org. "And the payoff with regard to Iran is so much bigger.
"I am not sure if the Russians have some sort of division of labor with the Americans. But from what I know of the Syrians, they want the Americans in the room, not the Russians," he said.
Annapolis seems to have boosted as many as four separate tracks: Palestinian, Syrian, normalization and creation of a moderate front against Iran.
For the United States, the united front against Iran is key. Some argue that it was the object of the whole exercise.
That raises this question: If the moderate alliance against Iran is so important, will the United States press Israel to make concessions to strengthen that alliance?
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