Under strong pressure from Washington to pull Syrian forces out of Lebanon and prevent cross-border terror against U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, Syria's President Bashar Assad has again been talking about a readiness for peace with Israel.
The Israeli establishment, however, is skeptical. Officials close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon say Assad is only trying to impress the Americans and is not ready to meet Israel's condition for renewed peace talks -- stopping Palestinian terror groups based in Damascus or the Hezbollah based in Lebanon from orchestrating suicide attacks against Israelis in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel proper.
They accuse Assad of playing a dangerous double game: talking peace while backing terror.
Assad's peace talk came after the U.N. Security Council recently urged him to withdraw Syrian soldiers from Lebanon and just before the United States threatened to impose stronger economic sanctions on Syria if it failed to do so.
American Middle East envoy William Burns, in a two-hour meeting with Assad in Damascus over last weekend, also warned the Syrian leader of dire consequences if he failed to crack down on terror launched from Syrian soil against U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
The Syrian president's latest peace overtures were sounded in a meeting earlier this month that he initiated with Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Edward Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco.
Assad told his American guests that peace with Israel remained a strategic goal and that he was ready to restart negotiations at any time without preconditions. He said his main demand was for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 Six-Day War lines, but that he was ready to negotiate over where those lines actually ran.
He said nothing about restarting talks from the point previous negotiations broke down, a longstanding Syrian demand rejected by Israel. He also did not link progress on the Syrian track with resolution of the Palestinian issue.
All this was carefully calculated to appeal to an Israeli audience. Even dovish Israelis, ready to trade the strategic Golan Heights for peace with Syria, want the border along the 1948 armistice line, a few hundred yards from the Sea of Galilee, and not on the line much closer to the water, a line that the Syrian army created through a series of encroachments between 1948 and 1967.
Moreover, the Sharon government is insisting on resuming peace talks from scratch. In his meeting with Indyk and Gabriel, Assad intimated that he would now be willing to consider these two key Israeli demands.
Assad added that he realized that Sharon was now preoccupied with his plan to disengage from the Palestinians. But as soon as the Israeli leader was ready for negotiations, Assad said he would be ready to take him up on the matter.
Indyk relayed the gist of Assad's presentation to Terje Larsen, the special U.N. Middle East envoy. Impressed, Larsen initiated an interview on Israel TV and declared: "I would grab Assad's offer with both hands."
Indyk, who now heads the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, and was deeply involved in previous Israeli-Syrian peace efforts, was more circumspect. He said it was clear that Assad's main aim was to improve Syrian ties with the United States, and that any peacemaking with Israel would be primarily a means to that end.
However, in an interview with Nahum Barnea in the Yediot Achronot daily newspaper, Indyk argued that whatever Assad's motivation, Israel had much to gain by engaging in peace talks with Syria.
Once in a process with Israel, Assad would have to clamp down on terror, Indyk suggested. He added that in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner, talking to Assad would show that Israel could hold a dialogue with a credible Arab interlocutor and thereby enhance its image in the Arab world and Europe.
The Israeli response has been wary. The chief of Israel's military intelligence, Aharon "Farkash" Ze'evi, said that given the situation in Iraq and the emergence of regional power centers in Iran and Turkey, he doubted whether Syria would stop backing Palestinian terror in the near future.
A few days before Assad's peace overtures, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz blamed Damascus for the twin suicide bus bombings in Beersheba on Sept. 1. He warned that Israel would not tolerate a situation in which Syria hosted and backed terrorist leaders who were drawing up plans and giving orders for terror against Israelis.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage even suggested in an interview with Egyptian TV last week that Syria bore "some responsibility" for the attack, given its support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Rather than making peace, Mofaz intimated that the two countries could soon find themselves locked in combat. Speaking to foreign correspondents a few days after Assad's overtures, Justice Minster Yosef "Tommy" Lapid made it clear that before any peace talks could start, Israel wanted to see tangible signs of Syrian good faith: "If the Syrians stop the terror, we will not refuse to sit down with them."
Assad, however, clearly sees Syrian support for terror as a powerful bargaining chip. He is not prepared to give it up without a substantial quid pro quo. He made it plain to Indyk that he was ready to put Syrian backing for Hezbollah and its hosting of the rejectionist Palestinian organizations on the table, but that he would not stop his support for terror as a precondition for talks.
So, for now, the possibility of talks between Israel and Syria seems to be stymied by a new version of the old "after you" syndrome.
In the Rabin era, Israel insisted that Syria first normalize relations, while Syria demanded that Israel first withdraw. Now Israel is saying first stop supporting terror, and Syria is saying first start talking peace.
On the Israeli side, analysts say, the reasons for lack of movement on the Syrian front go deeper. Sharon is not ready to contemplate withdrawal from Golan while under massive public pressure over his planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank. He has shown no sign of being convinced of the wisdom of withdrawing from the Golan under any circumstances.
There is another snag, too. Syria is no longer in a position to promise to deliver peace with the entire Arab world as Assad's father could, when he negotiated with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak more than four years ago.
What will Sharon do if, in response to international pressure, Syria starts withdrawing a substantial number of its 17,000 troops in Lebanon and loosening its bonds with Palestinian terror? Will Israel then, by engaging Assad, be able to engender a process that leads to a further fall in Syrian support for terror and eventually, to a peace both sides can benefit from?
If Assad can show that he is genuine, Sharon may be the one under international pressure and facing an offer he cannot refuse.
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