Shortly after noon yesterday, the Prime Minister's Office announced that "Syria and Israel have started indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey" in search of a "comprehensive peace" based upon "the Madrid Conference terms."
That reference point is significant because it was at Madrid, in 1991, that Israel accepted the principle of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
Though reports that Turkey has been serving as an intermediary in secret talks between Syria and Israel have been circulating for months, Wednesday's official announcement stuns nevertheless. For it comes as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for political survival in the face of mounting investigations into alleged wrongdoing.
Yet the news that top Olmert aides Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbovitz were in Istanbul as Turkish officials shuttled between them and Syrian negotiators raises hope that Syria may join Egypt and Jordan in making peace.
It also evokes cynicism. A common reaction by politicians and citizens alike - across the political spectrum - has been the Hebrew saying which translates as: "The depth of the retreat parallels the extent of the investigation."
But let's for the moment put aside the question of the premier's possible ulterior motives. And let's, for argument's sake, forget that Olmert's popularity is at a nadir, that his governing coalition is crumbling, and that on Friday the police will again be visiting his home with more questions about money-stuffed envelopes from a man named Morris Talansky.
WHAT INTERESTS Israelis most is whether this momentum toward a deal is in the country's interest. We are troubled by reports of a Syrian announcement that Israel has already agreed to withdraw from the Heights even in the absence of direct negotiations between the sides.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we may be witnessing an extraordinary Bush administration about-face. Until recently, Washington had been signaling Jerusalem not to engage with Damascus because of Syria's treacherous roles in Iraq and Lebanon and its bond with Iran.
Then all of a sudden, according to a report Saturday in the London-based Arabic Al-Hayat daily, the US supposedly asked Turkey to increase its efforts to advance negotiations between Israel and Syria.
YET ALL this is also besides the point. For what matters most now is what Syria is offering to make a withdrawal worth Israel's while. The extent of any withdrawal must parallel the depth of the peace offered. Who wants a cold peace with a Syria which has practically melded its foreign and military policies with Iran?
For Israelis to take its overtures seriously, Damascus would have to disconnect itself totally from the Iranian mullahs. Rather than helping arm Hizbullah, Syria would have to isolate it. And not only would Syria's policy of assassinating freedom-loving Lebanese leaders have to end, Damascus would need to recognize Lebanese sovereignty and open an embassy in Beirut. Israel cannot reasonably make peace with Syria while Lebanon smolders.
A deal with Syria could also potentially bolsterrelative moderates among the Palestinians; but not if Syria continues to host the Hamas leadership in Damascus. From state-sponsor of terror, it would have to transform itself into strategic opponent of terror.
Nor can Israel afford a deal perceived as being with Bashar Assad's Alawite clique alone. For the complete normalization of relations integral to any treaty, we need signs that Syria is developing its civil society and political institutions, and that the Sunni majority is being socialized toward tolerance and peace by the formidable state-controlled media.
A peace treaty with Syria is in Israel's strategic interest - but not at any price. Jerusalem is being called upon to make irrevocable concessions in return for the promise of Syrian goodwill. The finer points of an accord, notably about access to Israel's main natural water resource, the Kinneret, will be critical. The Golan, a vital geostrategic area which offers control of northern Israel, would have to be demilitarized and somehow trustworthy monitors put in place - but why not also envision a normalization that allows Jews to continue living there?
When Bashar took over from his father, Hafez, in 2000, the London-educated, British-accented physician was portrayed as the leader who would transform an autocracy into a forward-looking polity. But the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Assad the son has actually blocked access to the Web. There is only one government controlled Internet provider in Syria. Even Iran has more freedom of access.
Still, if Bashar now seeks that path, and truly seeks to lead his country, and by extension the Arab world, to full normalization with Israel, Israelis would urge him, as a vital step toward persuading us that we have entered an era of reconciliation, to come to the Knesset and tell us about it.
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