Russia Attempts to Succeed Where US Failed on Peace Talks

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Russia is sending an envoy to the Middle East in an effort to revive Israeli-Syrian negotiations, after recent attempts by President Clinton failed to restart the talks.

Russia's ambassador to Israel, Mikhail Bogdanov, said Friday his country would dispatch a special emissary to the region next week, according to a communiqu\'e9 from Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Bogdanov was asked to meet with Foreign Ministry director-general Eitan Bentsur to discuss Israeli and foreign media reports claiming that Russia had just signed a large arms deal with Syria. The Russian ambassador told Bentsur the reports were untrue.

Some analysts believe Russia is keen to exert its influence in the region and would rekindle its Cold War alliance with Syria by supplying the Arab state with arms.

During the Cold War, Washington supplied Israel with arms, while the former Soviet Union was the patron of most Arab states.

Others experts say Syria does not have the cash needed to make purchases from Russia.

Bogdanov said Vladimir Kartozov - a former Russian ambassador to Iraq - would hold talks in Israel, Damascus and Beirut aimed at advancing the peace process and facilitating Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

Talks between Jerusalem and Damascus broke down in January and have remained deadlocked over where the future border between the two countries should be drawn as part of a peace deal.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while willing to cede the entire Golan Heights, insists that Israel hold onto the Sea of Galilee shoreline, while Syrian President Hafez Assad says he wants territory right down to the water.

Israel draws 40 percent of its fresh water supply from the Galilee and fears that sharing it could lead to ecological problems and further disputes.

Syria has remained adamant that it will not give up any of its territorial expectations. Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967 and failed to regain it during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. However, the government has said that the door is not yet closed on the prospects of a treaty.

Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara was in Damascus this week at the invitation of Syrian officials. He met Assad's son and heir apparent, Bashar.

"[Bashar] thinks that the door [to peace] is not closed," Bishara said in an Israeli television interview after his return.

"It is clear for Syria that what is important for Israel is water, but it also needs to be clear to Israel that what is important to Syria are the borders," Bishara said.

Three weeks ago, Clinton met Assad in Geneva, but failed to persuade the Syrian leader to return to negotiations with Israel. Clinton left the "ball in Assad's court" but since then prospects have dimmed for an agreement in the near future.

Barak has said that the door is still open.

But two weeks ago, Israel declared its intention to withdraw troops from Lebanon unilaterally, rather than wait for a three-way agreement between Jerusalem, Damascus and the Syrian-controlled government in Beirut.