Damascus peace overtures stir new interest in Jerusalem

Gov't official urges clarification on how deal may break Iranian-Syrian alliance; widely believed agreement will cost Israel entire Golan.

The absence of a Palestinian partner, a US "wink," and an increasingly radicalized region are prompting a number of policy makers in Jerusalem to show new interest in discreetly gauging the seriousness of recent Syrian overtures. "Syria is a stable and central player in the Middle East," one senior government official said Thursday. "It is worth checking out [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's outlook on peace." According to this official, it would be worthwhile for Israel to test the waters and see to what degree a peace agreement with Syria would break up the Iranian-Syrian alliance, end Syrian support for Hizbullah, and bring it into the "moderate" Arab camp. It is widely believed that this type of peace agreement would cost Israel the entire Golan Heights. The return to Syria of the Golan Heights, according to the official, is important to Damascus, but not nearly as important as other goals it hoped to achieve through striking a deal with Israel: Removing threats to the Syrian regime by establishing normal relations with the US; ending any US desire to bring about regime change in Damascus; and retaining some kind of say in the developments inside Lebanon. The official said that Israel should, through secret channels, discern whether a peace agreement would be enough to take the Syrians out of the Iranian orbit. Israel, the official added, also needed to take into consideration the fact that a nuclear Iran could in the future lead to a "more adventurous Syria," because Damascus would feel protected by an Iranian nuclear umbrella. The official said that although recent talks in Sharm e-Sheikh between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem could not be described as a dramatic change in US policy, "it was the beginning of something." The official said that over the last few months, there has been "more than a little change" in the willingness of Israeli policy makers to explore Syria's intentions. However, despite press reports to the contrary, senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not had a change of heart regarding the Syrian option. Olmert's position for months has been that the Syrians were interested in the "peace process" in order to end their international isolation, but not in peace itself. According to Olmert's argument, Syria's policy of housing terrorist organizations, maintaining a close alliance with Iran and shipping arms to Hizbullah were not indications of a regime that was truly interested in peace with Israel. However, the official said, the situation is constantly being discussed and assessed inside the Prime Minister's Office. Olmert's opinion, the officials said, remains that the country's current diplomatic focus still needed be on the Palestinians.