U.S. Sees Syria as Key Player for Mideast Peace

Source: U.S. believes including Syria in process is key to bring about internal Palestinian reconciliation.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is examining a proposed Israeli-Syrian peace plan that is based on demilitarizing the Golan Heights and transforming it, along with a strip of the Jordan Valley, into a nature preserve, or "peace park," that would be open to visitors during the day.

The decision to send an American ambassador to Damascus after a four-year absence, along with the recent visit to the Syrian capital by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, were meant to prepare the ground for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks under American auspices.

A senior diplomatic source told Haaretz yesterday that Washington has concluded that including Syria in the peace process is key to the effort to bring about an internal Palestinian reconciliation, without which the chances of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track are small.

The Americans believe the crisis in Iran has created an opportunity for the United States to draw Syria closer and resume Israel-Syria negotiations, the source added.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has encouraged Obama to recruit Syrian President Bashar Assad's support for Egypt's efforts to achieve reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas by July 7. Under the Egyptian proposal, all the various Palestinian factions would set up a joint committee, answerable to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to govern the Gaza Strip. The main obstacle to this proposal is Khaled Meshal, the Hamas politburo chief, who is based in the Syrian capital.

Uri Saguy, who headed Israel's negotiating team with Syria during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister, said in a lecture in Jerusalem several days ago that Assad is not exaggerating when he says it is possible to consider 80 percent of the differences between Israel and Syria as having already been resolved.

Saguy pointed out that the main obstacle was not water rights or security arrangements, but where the border would pass. He said the Syrians' attitude changed when they realized that the June 4, 1967 lines are less advantageous to them than the international border in certain important respects. It was at that point, he said, that they agreed to discuss proposals for bridging the gaps on the border issue, including the notion of a "peace park."

Fred Hoff, who serves as Mitchell's deputy and is charged with the Syrian and Lebanese files, put forth a proposal under which much of the Golan Heights would be turned into a nature reserve open to visitors from both Israel and Syria during the day. The demilitarized area would be under international supervision, led by U.S. officers, while the pullout and dismantlement of Israeli settlements on the Golan would be carried out over several years, in parallel with a normalization of ties between Syria and Israel.