Talks With Syria Not on Agenda for Olmert-Bush Meet

Some of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's advisors are concerned that an initiative to renew peace talks with Syria might undermine Israel's relations with the United States.

The Bush administration is not keen on reviving the Syrian track, as it considers Bashar Assad's regime problematic and harmful to regional stability.

However, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi strongly supports renewed talks with Syria, with the goal of distancing Damascus from its alliance with Iran and contributing to a new regional order in which Syria would forge closer relations with moderate Arab states.

A government source said yesterday that resuming negotiations with Syria is not on the agenda for a scheduled meeting between Olmert and U.S. President George Bush in Washington in two weeks. Rather, the two are expected to discuss the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, the Arab Peace Initiative and ways of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The preparatory talks held last week apparently did not discuss the possibility of renewing Israel-Syria talks.

The Bush administration has made it clear to Israel that it is determined to establish an international tribunal in the near future to try those responsible for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Israel believes that Assad is very concerned at the prospect of the tribunal's establishment, because he fears his regime will be blamed for the assassination. Some analysts even believe that Assad's sole motivation for wanting to restart talks with Israel is to divert attention from the tribunal and his government's role in Lebanon.

In closed sessions, Olmert said recently that the Bush administration "has never told us officially not to talk with the Syrians." Senior officials who participated in the discussions therefore concluded that Olmert is holding secret talks with Damascus.

According to the Israeli government source, the "evaluation" that Olmert is currently conducting via a third party is aimed at trying to determine the "strategic return" that Syria will offer Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

"We wish to know whether the border overlooking [Lake] Kinneret will be quiet, or whether there will be Hamas outposts and Iranian forces," the source said. This question is at the crux of the "evaluation," along with the transmission of messages aimed at preventing the outbreak of a war between Israel and Syria due to a "miscalculation" in Damascus.

Intelligence assessments received by Olmert emphasize Syria's central role in the "axis of evil." The prime minister would therefore like to ensure that Syria will cool its relations with Iran and reintegrate into the group of moderate Sunni states - Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - as part of any peace deal.

According to the government source, a withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be a mistake if Syria's alliance with Iran, and the support Damascus offers to Hezbollah and Hamas, continue.