(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Peace with the Jewish state is not one of the top four items on President Bashar Assad's to-do list, but is still something Israel should pursue, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at Sunday's cabinet meeting, where the nascent Syrian diplomatic track was discussed for the first time since it was made public last week.
Barak, who has been aware of the discussions being conducted with the Syrians via Turkish mediators since last year, said, "The Syrians have a different agenda than Israel."
According to the defense minister, Assad's first priority is the survival of his regime. His second priority is getting the international tribunal into 2005's assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri canceled, a tribunal that is expected to point an accusatory finger at the highest echelons of the Syrian government.
Third, according to Barak, is securing a "special status" for Syria in Lebanon, followed by getting itself into the good graces of the US and the West. Only after all those interests does the Golan Heights enter Assad's list of priorities.
Nevertheless, Barak said Israel has an interest in seeing whether it was possible to pull Syria out of the circle of implacably hostile countries. It was necessary to realize, however, that these talks would continue for quite some time, and that such negotiations were more complicated now then in the past because of Damascus's deep involvement with Iran and Hizbullah.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet that Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz - a former chief of General Staff - knew of the Turkish-mediated contacts with Damascus from their outset. Only Barak, however, knew of the shuttle diplomacy Turkish diplomats carried out last week in an Istanbul hotel between high level Israeli and Syrian delegations.
Olmert also briefed the ministers on the genesis of the talks, going back to his meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February 2007, where the idea of Turkey acting as a mediator was born.
While a number of other parties offered to serve as middlemen in talks between Syria and Israel, "the Syrians preferred the Turkish channel," Olmert said.
In an apparent attempt to deflect charges that the secret track was made public now to distract the public from his ongoing corruption investigations, the prime minister said the last meeting with the Turks in Istanbul, the one announced last week, was set up over a month ago. He also said Syria, and not Israel, was the party keen on going public with the announcement of the talks.
The government would conduct "serious and responsible negotiations, with all due caution, he said, and a steering committee was involved that included officials from the Mossad, Military Intelligence, Foreign Ministry and IDF.
Olmert said that as in past negotiations with the Syrians, the details of the talks would be kept secret.
"I can say that we are taking these negotiations seriously," he said. "There has been, and will be, very precise and detailed preparations, which are appropriate for the expectations we have of these negotiations, given the current reality, not that of nine or 10 years ago."
Diplomatic officials said the current negotiations would be different than in the past, because in the intervening years Syria had gotten much closer to Iran, and that the severing of their ties with Iran, as well as with Hizbullah and Hamas, would be an Israeli demand.
While a number of cabinet ministers spoke in favor of the talks, foremost among them Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai voiced sharp reservations.
"As long as Assad does not leave the axis of evil, and is tied to Iran and Hizbullah, speaking to him gives him legitimization and frees him from his problem, and that is a mistake," Yishai told reporters before the meeting.
"We have taken great strides for peace, with Assad and with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]," he said. "All the ministers and prime ministers have already said what we are willing to give, but the other side is not even willing to recognize Israel."