Feature

Israel and Syria: Old enemies come to the table

Is peace breaking out in the Middle East? asked Charles A. Landsmann in Berlin

Is peace breaking out in the Middle East? asked Charles A. Landsmann in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel. First, Lebanon’s quarreling factions pulled back from civil war with a last-minute deal; then, last week, Syria and Israel revealed that they were negotiating through Turkish mediators. Reports—not immediately denied by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—suggested that Israel could hand back the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war, if the Syrians cut ties with Iran and stop supporting Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Don’t give Olmert too much credit, said Tel Aviv’s Ma’ariv in an editorial. He is more than happy to distract attention from the corruption scandal that has engulfed him. He is under investigation for allegations that, before becoming prime minister, he was in the habit of taking cash-stuffed envelopes from a businessman in exchange for favors. But whatever Olmert’s motives, this is “a historic opportunity” that should not be missed, said Tel Aviv’s Ha’aretz. Just think how much could have been gained if we’d struck a deal with Syria two years ago. Hezbollah would not have been able to arm to its present strength and the “unnecessary” 2006 war with Lebanon would have been avoided.

Don’t get your hopes up, said Shai Bazak in Tel Aviv’s Yedioth Ahronoth. Previous efforts have all come to nothing. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad will never break ranks with Iran and Hezbollah; about three-quarters of Israelis are opposed to handing back the Golan Heights, because before 1967 the Syrians used it to bombard Israel. These talks are just posturing: Both sides want to be seen to aspire to peace while making the other look rejectionist.

But this time, both parties urgently need a deal, said Yaakov Katz in The Jerusalem Post. Israeli army commanders are scared stiff about Syria’s massive arms program. Russia is ready to supply it with the latest MiG fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles, which would undermine Israel’s military superiority. They also fear that Syria’s nuclear program, which Israel bombed last year, is still very much in business. As for the Golan, modern long-distance missiles mean it no longer has such strategic value; but for Syria, its return would be a major symbolic coup. Assad, for his part, is very worried about the Syrian economy. To revive it he needs to renew ties with the U.S. and end Syria’s international isolation, thus unlocking billions of dollars in aid and loans. It will be tricky, but this is the best chance of peace

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