Olmert's response to publication of the document that was agreed on in the secret talks creates the impression that Israel is frightened by the peace signals coming from Damascus and prefers to frighten the public with Syrian threats of war.
Since the end of the second Lebanon war, Jerusalem has received a flood of messages from Damascus about Syria's desire to resume negotiations with Israel. Akiva Eldar published a document in Haaretz yesterday that summarized a series of understandings reached via a secret, informal channel under the auspices of a European foreign ministry. Those involved in the secret meetings do not claim they constituted negotiations, or that the document binds the Israeli government or even represents its positions. However, the official European representative visited Damascus a few times and met with senior Syrian government officials, and received confirmation that the stances presented by the Syrian representative, Ibrahim Suleiman, had the blessings of official Damascus.
The document, which was drafted last summer, evinces a Syrian willingness to compromise over Israel's security needs and water concerns. A degree of flexibility was also evident in Syria's positions on the timetable for evacuating the Golan Heights. The parties found a creative formula to bridge the gap between Syria's demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967 lines and Israel's insistence on retaining control over use of the Jordan River's headwaters and Lake Kinneret: A park would be created for joint Syrian-Israeli use in a buffer zone along the Kinneret, and this park would cover a significant portion of the Golan. It was also agreed that the territory on both sides of the border would be demilitarized, with the Syrian demilitarized zone being four times as large as the Israeli demilitarized zone.
The meetings' participants say that in the context of a peace treaty that would include United States and United Nations guarantees, Syria would promise to work to turn Hezbollah into only a political party, stop its support for terrorist organizations and also help promote a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The Syrians even hinted that an end to America's boycott of the Assad regime would reduce their dependence on Iran. No responsible Israeli government can allow itself to refrain from making an effort to examine Assad's intentions in-depth.
On the eve of her visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that all the parties involved in the Middle East conflict should be involved in efforts to resolve it. Nevertheless, the Bush administration opposes removing Syria from the "Axis of Evil," and therefore Rice once again skipped Damascus. One can understand Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's reluctance to bypass our American friend, who is leading the international fight against Iran's nuclear program. Nevertheless, in light of the involvement of two American citizens in the European channel, Olmert is obligated to determine whether the U.S. is indeed a barrier to negotiations with Syria. If this is in fact the case, the prime minister must make an effort to persuade President Bush that removing Syria from the region's cycle of violence is an Israeli and American interest of the highest order.
Yet Olmert's response to publication of the document that was agreed on in the secret talks creates the impression that Israel is frightened by the peace signals coming from Damascus and prefers to frighten the public with Syrian threats of war. This creates the suspicion that the prime minister is making cynical use of America's position to avoid a genuine examination of Syria's intentions.
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