I do not know if Ehud Olmert, given his weak state, can be the Israeli leader capable of initiating peace talks with Syria. But what is for certain is that the time has come to give it a try. Syria is up to its ears in very grave regional problems while Israel today, from a security standpoint, is weaker than ever before.
Since the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, observers concerned with the matter realize that peace between Tel Aviv and Damascus is more likely and easier to achieve, despite the repeated failures since Madrid in 91, followed by the negotiations in 1993, and finally the Maryland negotiations.
But since the Geneva meeting between the late President Hafez al Assad and former American President Bill Clinton in 2000, everyone sensed that Syria was ready [for peace] but that Israel was reluctant. There were no further negotiations since the death of President Assad; however talks in the past had led to crucial understandings that could enable a peaceful future if indeed both sides were sincere.
In the latest negotiations, the two parties reached an agreement on most of the pending issues, most markedly Israel’s full withdrawal from the Golan Heights (Israel’s 4th June 1967 border) in return for Syria ending the hostility by decreasing its confrontational force on the front and re-stationing them to safe lines. Meanwhile, Israel backed down on the precondition to establish its own regulatory security locations on the territories from which it would withdraw after receiving guarantees from the US that it would provide it with satellite information regarding Syria’s movement in the Golan Heights. Moreover, mediators also proposed a bilateral approach to Lake Tiberias to dispel the conflict around the issue.
Notwithstanding, Israelis who had made good progress in the last negotiations seven years ago showed reluctance towards drafting an agreement under the pretext that Syria’s future of governance was ambiguous amidst the increasing news of President Hafez al Assad’s illness that were circulating. They opted for a wait-and-see policy to find out what would happen in terms of Assad’s succession and to Syria as a whole.
Washington’s most recent statements mentioned that Israel was willing to resume negotiations, unlike the Americans who believe that Damascus wants to use negotiations as a means of distraction to save it from the precarious situation it is in.
But the truth is intentions can only be tested through sitting down for negotiations and giving Syria a genuine opportunity to present what it has. Yet, negotiations will be a waste of time if they start from the same starting point of the past rather than from where they ended, which is the restoration of full Syrian territory in return for Israel’s security.
Since its negotiations with Henry Kissinger, Syria has fulfilled its end of the deal and respected the agreement by maintaining a calm front so that the Israeli cities located west of the separating border remained safe.
Thirty-four years of peace is not a small figure between enemies; a more solid and lasting peace could be built upon it for the whole region.
Whether Damascus is creating all these problems in an attempt to drive parties into negotiating with it for a just peace, or just using them to cover up the conflicts it has caused in the region only time holds the answer to this puzzling situation.