Old Messages With Exquisite Timing

Damascus has been showering Israel with peace signals in recent days. Last Friday the Italian daily La Repubblica published an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad, in which he suggests to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to "call the Syrian bluff" by agreeing to negotiate with Syria.

That same day Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said in an interview in the Washington Post that Syria has no preconditions to negotiating with Israel, and that such talks are not conditional even on a pullout from the Golan.

The Syrians are not bringing up any new ideas or concessions in these interviews. Assad himself had "forgone" preconditions already in 2004, when he said the negotiations need not begin from where they had stopped in Ehud Barak's era.

The timing of the Syrian diplomacy is therefore interesting. It may be tied to the forecasts in Israel about the war expected next summer, and could be connected to Assad's statements about not ruling out "other options" apart from peace. Assad may also wish to neutralize the international pressure vis-a-vis Lebanon, especially since it is becoming clearer that solving the Lebanese crisis depends on Syria. Syria must make it clear to Hezbollah that it does not object to setting up an international court to try Rafik Hariri's murderers, thus neutralizing one of Hezbollah's main demands.

However, Assad's overtures should not be dismissed out of hand, for Assad has never given up his wish to take part in regional moves. The list of Syria's activities in the past year, including its influence on Hamas, resumption of diplomatic relations with Iraq, and close relations with Turkey alongside the manipulations in Lebanon, give Syria a sense of returning to the center of the political arena, which should culminate with a peace agreement with Israel.

In contrast to Israel's demands that Syria stop supporting terror, and Washington's demands to stop its involvement in Lebanon and seal the border with Iraq, Syria is proposing a reverse process - negotiating with it, recognizing its status in the Middle East and thus ensuring its cooperation. From Israel's point of view, it would be at least fascinating to negotiate with a Syria that recognizes Israel, while it hosts and supports organizations that don't. It would be no less fascinating to see the reaction of Hezbollah and Hamas to Israeli-Syrian negotiations.