Thursday, April 24, 2008

Israel and Syria nearing peace agreement?

For 41 years, Israel has occupied land that has ideologically divided its own citizenry. The West Bank has its biblical landmarks and Gaza its squaller. (Comparing the two, it's easy to understand why Israel removed troops and settlements from one and not the other.) The third is the Golan Heights, the mountain range stretching from the Sea of Galilee to Israel's northern border and wedged between the Jewish state and Syria.

Often is left out of the discussion of the occupied territories Israel captured in the Six Day War, the Golan has a strictly strategic value: keeping Syria from firing down on its neighbor. When I was in Israel last summer, tensions between the two moved precariously close to war and everyone was ready for it. Israel even tempted Damascus with an air strike inside Syria a month later.

Could it be now that Israel and Syria are nearing a peace agreement that would include turning over the Golan? From The New York Times:
Peace overtures between Israel and Syria moved up a gear on Wednesday when a Syrian cabinet minister said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel had sent a message to President Bashar al-Assad to the effect that Israel would be willing to withdraw from all the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

The Syrian expatriate affairs minister, Buthaina Shaaban, told Al Jazeera television, “Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria.” She said that Turkey had conveyed the message.

Israeli officials did not deny the statement from Damascus but would not confirm it either, offering a more general, positive reaction. “Israel wants peace with Syria; we are interested in a negotiated process,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert. “The Syrians know well our expectations, and we know well their expectations.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the Damascus newspaper Al Watan reported that the Israeli offer was relayed to Mr. Assad by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by telephone on Tuesday. Mr. Olmert had told Mr. Erdogan that “Israel was ready to withdraw completely from the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria,” Al Watan reported.

Withdrawal from the Golan Heights is a contentious issue in Israel. The territory is a strategic plateau that overlooks a large swath of northern Israel. Israel has objected to past Syrian demands for access to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a main water source for Israel.

In the wake of the Syrian reports on Wednesday, an Israeli member of Parliament from Mr. Olmert’s Kadima Party, David Tal, said he would work to accelerate the passage of legislation conditioning any withdrawal from the Golan Heights on a national referendum.

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