Israeli-Syria Talks Would Be About Golan Heights, Not Peace, Some Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Possible Israeli-Syrian negotiations would not be aimed at a peace agreement -- they would focus on Israel giving up its strategic advantage on the Golan Heights, and therefore Israel would be foolish to engage in such negotiations, experts here said.

The topic of Israeli-Syrian negotiations came up after the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton, released a report recommending ways to stabilize Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Among other things, the ISG report called for Israel and Syria to resume negotiations, which have been frozen since 2000. In exchange for certain concessions by Syria, "the Israelis should return the Golan Heights," the report said.

But many Israelis believe that giving up the strategic plateau (which Israel captured in the 1967 war) would not bring peace or any other benefit, analysts here said.

Cameron Brown, deputy director of the GLORIA Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said he believes that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has no interest in talks with Syria. It is convenient for him that President Bush also opposes Israeli-Syrian talks, he said.

Syria is more interested in the process than the outcome, said Brown. (Syria alternately has been offering a return to talks and threatening war since the summer, when Israel and Hizballah fought each other in Lebanon.)

If Syria were really interested in achieving peace, Damascus would relinquish its claim to areas along the shores of the Sea of Galilee where it encroached on Israeli territory from 1948 to 1967. Syria also would stop helping Hamas and Hizballah, Brown said in a telephone interview.

The Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station reported on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad sent a secret message to Olmert offering to resume negotiations -- without preconditions. He reportedly offered to rein in the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas and prevent the flow of weapons from Iran through Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon.

Such an offer would have answered one of Israel's complaints about Syria - that it is a major supporter of Palestinian and Hizballah terrorism. But both Olmert and Assad denied that such a communication had taken place.

Many Israelis are not interested in what Brown described as a "very cold peace" with Syria.

Syria is still close to Iran and Hizballah and wants to get back into Lebanon, said Brown. Israelis wouldn't be willing to give up the strategic Golan Heights for the theoretical chance to "eat humus in Damascus," he said.

Dr. Martin Sherman from Tel Aviv University said Israel should be willing to talk with the Syrians -- but only if the goal was "peace for peace" rather than peace for land (Golan Heights).

"It's completely inconceivable to understand [the idea of] relinquishing more territory to an Arab power [after] the experience of the last two decades -- especially the Golan Heights," said Sherman in a telephone interview.

Israel relinquished the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in the summer of 2005 and it gave up territory to Lebanon in 2000, when it withdrew its forces from a buffer zone in southern part of the country. Since then, terrorists have used the surrendered land as platform for attacking Israel, Sherman noted.

On the other hand, the border between Israel and Syria (the Golan Heights) has been quiet in recent years, he said (since the 1973 Yom Kippur war).

The Golan Heights is vitally important, said Sherman. Giving it up would mean that instead of Israel controlling the approaches to the Syrian capital of Damascus, Syria would control the approaches to the Israel's third largest city, the coastal city of Haifa, said Sherman.

The Golan Heights is also a vital water catchment area for the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), from which Israel draws about a third of its fresh water supply, said Sherman.

"If [the Golan Heights] falls into the hands of the Syrians the future of the Kinneret as a source of fresh water is doubtful," he said.

Sherman noted that some people argue it's better for Israel to make an agreement with Assad, since the next Syrian regime could be even more radical. But he called such thinking "absurd."

He pointed to Iran as an example of a Middle Eastern country whose policy toward Israel has hifted radically. Just over two decades ago, Israel had diplomatic ties with Tehran and its national air carrier made weekly flights to the country. People would have laughed then if someone had said that Iran would become Israel's worst enemy, he said.

Israel can't afford to formulate its foreign policy on a "best-case scenario," he added.

Some in the Israeli security establishment are bracing for a worst-case scenario. Despite recent Syrian overtures, the country actually is preparing for war -- as soon as next summer, some say.

Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's Mossad (secret service), told Israeli lawmakers this week that Assad's self-confidence had grown this summer as a result of Israel's perceived defeat by Hizballah. The Lebanese militia gave Israel a stronger fight than many expected.

"Any misstep" on Israel's part could trigger a war, Dagan was quoted as saying in the Jerusalem Post. Such a "misstep" could include Israel buzzing the palace of Assad as it has done several times in an attempt to send a message to Damascus, he said.

A Saudi newspaper, Okaz, reported on Tuesday that Assad, who was in Moscow for talks with Russian leaders, was there with the primary goal of buying weapons that would be paid for mostly by Iran.

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