Are Israel and Syria Headed Towards Peace, or Will Tel Aviv Have Another "Accidental" Summer War?
Nearly a year has passed since the Islamist resistance group Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid into Israel, igniting a 34-day summer war that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis, and destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure. On Jul. 16, the United Nations Security Council will discuss the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war, but, as recent U.N. reports indicate, failed to stop the flow of heavy-weapons across the Syrian-Lebanese border and into the hands of Hezbollah.
As with the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, political analysts in Washington are pointing to Damascus as the main instigator of Lebanon's instability.
The last week has witnessed new warnings of another possible summer war between Israel and Syria, one of Hezbollah's main patrons.
"Syria has rearmed Hezbollah to the teeth -- there should be a price to pay for that," Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, told the Israeli online news agency Ynetnews.com. "Nobody has made any decision (about going to war), but the Syrians are positioning themselves for war."
As Israel conducted an extensive military exercise in the occupied Golan Heights, unconfirmed reports circulated on several online newswires last week claiming that Damascus had urged Syrian nationals to leave Lebanon before Jul. 15, one day before the Security Council is to discuss Resolution 1701, and the possibility of stationing international experts on the Syria-Lebanon border in order to monitor illegal arms trafficking to Hezbollah.
The reports were denied by Syrian officials on Sunday, according to a report from the Jerusalem Post.
While some analysts are predicting a tense summer in the Middle East and a worst-case scenario that implicates Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas in a broader regional conflict with Israel and the U.S., the most recent sabre-rattling may be subject to another interpretation.
"Neither Israel nor the U.S. is ready for war. The U.S. and Iran have held a preliminary meeting in Baghdad, which might lead to more exchanges, while the Israeli media have reported that Olmert has sent secret messages to Bashar (al-Assad) in Damascus responding positively to the Syrian leader's repeated calls for a resumption of negotiations," wrote Syria expert Patrick Seale, in a column published by Gulf News.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was even more explicit when he told Al-Arabyia television on Tuesday he was ready for direct talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"You (Assad) have been saying that you want the negotiations through the Americans. But they do not want to sit with you. I am ready to sit you and talk about peace not war," he said. "I will be happy if I could make peace with Syria. I do not want to wage war against Syria."
In a series of secret meetings between September 2004 and July 2006, Israelis, led by Alon Liel, the former head of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Syrians, led by Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Soliman, recommended that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for Syria's agreement to stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, distance itself from Iran, and make efforts to stabilise Iraq. "In today's Israeli political scene, it is possible for a prime minister to stand up and say: 'I'm going to test the Syria option and see if Assad is ready to make a deal'," Liel told an Israeli Policy Forum audience. "The 'Golan lobby' that will resist a deal with Syria is not as overpowering as everyone thinks." In 1967, Israel captured the Golan Heights -- a 7-kilometre-long strategic plateau -- during the Six-Day War and has occupied it since. There are some 32 Israeli settlements housing 20,000 people and a similar number of Syrian nationals concentrated in five northern villages throughout the occupied area.
Any negotiation between Israel and Syria is contingent on U.S. willingness to engage Damascus directly, a policy the George W. Bush administration has been loathe to pursue, considering its position that Syria is a state sponsor of "terror".
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005, in response to Hariri's assassination in Beirut.
In May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned Israel against pursuing a peace deal with Syria instead of with warring Palestinian factions, saying there is "no substitute" for creating a Palestinian state.
"My understanding is that it is the view of Israelis, and certainly our view, that the Syrians are engaged in behavior right now that is destabilizing the region," Rice told reporters in Berlin during a trip to resuscitate the Palestinian peace process.
One month later, Hamas routed Fatah from Gaza, forcing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to form a new government in the West Bank.
Rice's embrace of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was, in retrospect, too little too late, and contradicted earlier rhetoric from the State Department that emphasised the battle between "moderates" and "extremists" in the region over the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
What's more, there could be significant costs if Syria is excluded from the peace process, according to an April report from the International Crisis Group (ICG).
"Damascus possesses multiple ways of undermining Israeli-Palestinian talks, whether by encouraging Hamas or Islamic Jihad to resort to violence; vocally criticising Palestinian concessions; or, in the event of a peace deal, obstructing the holding of the referendum among Palestinian refugees in Syria," it said.
Comments made Riad Daoudi, al-Assad's legal advisor, at a conference in Brussels, and reported by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz emphasised the point that without the U.S., there will be no negotiations.
"The Americans have to pay all the parties for the U.S. responsibility for what is happening now in the Middle East. [They have to pay] Israel as well," he said, according to the report.
According to most experts, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq has undermined the U.S. position throughout the region, and rendered it an increasingly dubious peace broker.
Yet a policy turnabout may finally enable Israel and Syria to enter into meaningful talks, and most analysts agree this should happen before another "accidental" summer war plunges the region into deeper instability.
"In the wake of the Iraqi catastrophe and the erupting violence everywhere, the international mood is to seek a resolution of conflicts," wrote Seale. "Especially that between Israel and its neighbours, rather than to pile up still more bitterness and hate."