U.S. Blocks Peace Talks between Syria and Israel

Article excerpt

Even as American officials reluctantly agreed last month to include Syrian representatives in multiparty talks on Iraqi security issues, the Bush administration continues to block Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria over its security concerns.

Israel and Syria came close to a peace agreement in early 2000, in which Israel would withdraw from Syrian territory occupied since the June 1967 war in return for strict security guarantees, normalized relations, the demilitarization of the strategic Golan Heights and the cessation of support for radical anti-Israel groups. Only a dispute regarding the exact demarcation of the border, constituting no more than a few hundred yards, prevented a final settlement.

Since the assumption of power of the right-wing Likud bloc early the following year, Israel has refused to resume peace talks. In addition, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the Israeli government has announced plans to double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied Syrian lands.

Within Israel, however, there is a growing awareness that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would not jeopardize Israeli security. While maintaining the high ground may have constituted a strategic advantage 40 years ago, it is far less important in an era when the principal threats to Israel's security come in the form of suicide bombers and long-range missiles. Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon observed that from a strategic perspective, Israel could cede the Golan Heights in return for peace and successfully defend Israel's internationally recognized border.

With Syria calling for a resumption of peace talks, there has been growing pressure within Israel to resume negotiations, with polls showing that a majority of Israelis support such efforts. Many Israelis also recognize the broader implication of resuming dialogue with Damascus. Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, noted: "The moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle East, and we can begin renewing ties with other Arab states."

Following last summer's war in Lebanon, several prominent members of the Israeli cabinet--including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avid Dichter--called on their government to resume negotiations with Syria, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a senior aide to prepare for possible talks. …