Analysis: Olmert's evolving Syria policy

That serious contacts between Israel and Syria were taking place should come as no surprise.

Olmert cabinet 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert cabinet 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Truth be told, the most dramatic element about the Prime Minister's Office's formal announcement on Wednesday of indirect peace negotiations with Syria was not the content of the statement, but the statement itself. "Syria and Israel have started indirect peace talks, under the auspices of Turkey," the statement read, confirming what has been an open secret for months: Israel and the Syrians have been trading messages through Turkey's good offices. But it was the act of going public with the negotiations, and saying the purpose of the talks was "to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace in accordance with the Madrid Conference terms of reference for peace," that made the announcement significant. That serious contacts between Israel and Syria have been taking place should come as no surprise. Back in March, at a press conference with foreign journalists, Olmert alluded to the contacts, saying, "I [have] said indeed that I'm prepared to make peace with Syria. I hope that the Syrians are prepared to make peace with Israel, and I hope that the circumstances will allow us to sit together. That doesn't mean that when we sit together, you have to see us." And then, in a later pre-Pessah interview with Yediot Aharonot, Olmert was asked whether he would be willing to declare, as three other prime ministers have done, that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. "I don't know what Netanyahu, Barak and Rabin said. What I can say is that I am very interested in a peace process with Syria. I've been acting on this issue and I hope that my efforts mature into something meaningful," he said. "I can assure you that on matters concerning Israel and the Syrians, they are well aware of what I want from them, and I know very well what they want from us." Next, a few days later, Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper, said Olmert had "assured the Turkish prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] of his readiness to return the Golan. What we need now is finding common ground through the Turkish mediator." What all the above indicates is that the fact that Israel and Syria were trading messages through Turkey was no secret. However, Israel's position up until now was that it was willing to hold talks with the Syrians, but wanted them to be discreet, secret, away from the media. Syria, on the other hand, wanted the talks to be open and public, and with intimate US involvement. Israel's concern was that Syria wanted the hullabaloo of a peace process more than the peace itself, hoping that the talks themselves would help pave their way back into the good graces of the US and the West. Israel, at least until Wednesday, did not want to give Syria a photo opportunity to help it out of its isolation. The question that needs to be asked now is, what changed? One explanation preferred in Jerusalem is that the preliminary talks that have been taking place have convinced Israel that Damascus is indeed interested in substance, and not just form. The new willingness to go public with the talks is just the latest in the evolution of Olmert's Syrian policy. Olmert met with Erdogan in Ankara in February 2007 and laid the groundwork for a Turkish role in mediating with Syria. In May of that year, he spoke publicly about how he would be the fourth prime minister willing to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace. His interest in the Syrian track waned, however, after he went to Washington in the summer of 2007 and was told by the Bush administration that although not opposed, the US would not be involved. This dampened the whole process to a large extent, largely because the Syrians were keen on US involvement, but also because the focus then moved toward the Palestinians and the Annapolis process. During this period, Olmert's stated position was that for there to be talks with Damascus, the Syrians would have to change their behavior fundamentally regarding Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. But in March, this policy changed as well, with Olmert saying publicly for the first time that Syria did not have to break from Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah as a condition to talks, but rather that engaging Syria could lead Damascus to take those steps. This was long the opinion of military intelligence. The Mossad, however, reportedly believes that Syria is too deep in Iran's orbit to be budged. Wednesday's announcement, however, indicated not only a slow evolution of Israel's position, but also a slight change in Syria's stance. While Assad stated previously that it was critical for the US to be actively involved in the talks, his willingness to have existence of the talks publicized Wednesday indicates that he was willing to forgo that condition and let the Turks play the key role in the hope that the US would get actively involved later.