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by Peter Hirschberg

Neo-Cons Were Pushing for Israel to Attack Syria During Lebanon War

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- It - would seem Israel is being offered exactly what it has been demanding for so many years from Syria: negotiations without preconditions. No insistence now by Damascus on Israeli readiness to make territorial concessions even before talks have begun.

"There is no precondition," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told the Washington Post after being asked whether Israel's readiness to return the Golan Heights to Syria -- a strategic mountain range captured by Israel during the 1967 war -- was a prerequisite for talks. "A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions," he said in the mid-December interview.

That same day, Syrian President Bashar Assad, talking in the Italian daily La Repubblica, challenged a skeptical Israeli leadership to call his "bluff" and treat his declared readiness for negotiations seriously. "Take the risk and discover if (Syria is) lying or not," he said, aiming his remarks at the Israeli leadership.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not seem to be in the mood for taking risks, or he is convinced Assad is not to be taken at his word. In a series of public statements, he has spurned the overtures from Damascus.

Standing aside British Prime Minister Tony Blair after their meeting this week in Jerusalem, the Israeli leader said that Syria's calls for renewed peace talks were not matched by its actions -- "an attempt to topple the democratic Lebanese government, support for the radical Hamas, efforts to undermine the possibility of progress on the Palestinian track, support for anti-American terror."

But Olmert is also acutely aware of Bush's persistent opposition to dialogue with Syria, despite the recent Baker-Hamilton report, which advised the U.S. Administration to engage Damascus as part of a strategy to stabilize Iraq. The Prime Minister is said to have told ministers at a cabinet meeting earlier this week that Israel should not accept Assad's invitation to talks as long as Bush, "the most important strategic ally of Israel, opposes any negotiations with Syria."

The last time Israel and Syria sat around the negotiating table was in January 2000 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The sides came close to an agreement, but the talks ultimately broke down over whether an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would also give the Syrians access to the Sea of Galilee, Israel's major water source.

In his autobiography, President Bill Clinton, who hosted the talks, said then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak had balked at the last moment because of opinion polls that indicated the Israeli public would not countenance such an agreement. Barak said Clinton's account of the talks was based on "factual inaccuracies."

While the Syria-Israel border has long been quiet, Damascus provides strong backing for Hezbollah, ensuring that Israel's border with Lebanon remains unsafe. In July, Israel launched a major operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon after the Shia group attacked an Israeli patrol on the border, killing eight soldiers and abducting two. Many of the missiles -- especially the longer-range ones -- that Hezbollah fired from south Lebanon into northern Israel during the month-long war, were supplied by Syria.

Some Israeli experts have long held the view that Syria is using Hezbollah as a proxy to pressure Israel into ceding the Golan Heights. The unstated quid pro quo: if Israel gives back the mountain range, then Syria will cease its backing for Hezbollah.

So what is the downside of engaging Assad? Olmert's aides argue that not only will Syria continue to back groups like Hamas and Hezbollah even if a peace treaty is in place, but if talks are launched and then break down the result could be military escalation along the Israel-Syria border.

What's more, they insist, the motivation lurking behind the Syrian leader's call for renewed negotiations is not the desire to reach an agreement with Israel. Rather, they say, it is Assad's desire to ease international pressure on Syria and to extract himself from Bush's "axis of evil" by appearing reasonable and constructive.

But not all of Israel's political leaders share Olmert's view. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who heads the center-left Labor Party, has said publicly that the government should not ignore Assad's overtures. "I certainly think that the need to talk to Syria... is something that must be done," he said this week.

Ran Cohen, a lawmaker for the dovish Meretz party, said Israel found itself in an "absurd situation in which Syria is going out of its way to signal to Israel it is serious, while the Israeli leadership is going out of its way to prevent any progress."

Suddenly, there appears to be a role reversal, with Israel now insisting on preconditions to talks. Members of Olmert's party have said that if Assad really wants to talk, he must first prove his sincerity by closing down the Damascus offices of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which actively call for Israel's destruction.

"Halting the activities of terror headquarters in Damascus and stopping (Hamas leader) Khaled Mashaal's activities in Syria are preconditions for a dialogue as far as we are concerned," said Vice-Premier Shimon Peres. He also said Syria must halt its arming of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But some Israeli leaders argue that the goal of severing Syria's close ties to Iran should be sufficient reason to engage Damascus without any preconditions. Israel fears Iran is building nuclear weapons, and some experts believe Tehran could be isolated if Assad was given sufficient incentive to loosen ties with Iran.

Former defense minister Ephraim Sneh is doubtful. "If Syria was to leave the 'axis of evil' that would of course be a good thing," the Labor Party lawmaker told IPS. "But I'm afraid that is not the intention of the Syrian President. I don't only listen to what he says, but I also observe what he does. His alliance with other members of the 'axis of evil' is too strong. He hosts Hamas, supplies Hezbollah and has a strategic alliance with Iran."

That is a view shared by the Prime Minister. "The question is not what we will give Syria," Olmert said at the cabinet meeting earlier this week. "After all, (Ehud) Barak and (Benjamin) Netanyahu offered the entire Golan Heights. But what will Israel receive from Syria? Will today's circumstances enable us to cut Syria off from Iran? Will we be able to end Syrian support of Hamas? We must consider these things with reservations, and carefully."

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Albion Monitor   December 20, 2006   (

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