Experts disagree on chances of deal

Shortly after the Prime Minister's Office announced the commencement of indirect peace talks with Syria via Turkey, leading Israeli academics and Middle East experts expressed doubts and disagreement about the prospect of successful negotiations. The announcement was a step up from Syria's April 24 claim that Jerusalem had expressed its willingness to cede the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, according to Prof. Eyal Zisser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. Zisser doubted Olmert's ability to effectively negotiate in the current political climate. "Clearly Olmert is very serious, but let's see if he can do it within the Israeli political system and the Israeli public," he told The Jerusalem Post. Zisser believes that Olmert has already reached an understanding with the Syrians regarding his willingness to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, but will not reveal this to the public until a peace agreement is reached. Prof. Moshe Maoz, who teaches Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University, disagreed with Zisser's belief in an existing agreement with the Syrians, claiming that Olmert's poor standing among the public would make it difficult for him to implement such an agreement. "[Olmert] will have a backlash because most of the population is against [ceding the Golan Heights]," predicted Maoz. "He's not the type of leader who can sway or sweep the population like Begin did." Maoz also expressed concern about the opposition of US President George W. Bush to peace negations with Syria, remarking that "for Israel, the opposition of Bush is a serious opposition." However, Dr. Alon Liel, chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society and former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, was far less pessimistic than Maoz about Olmert's chances of successfully negotiating peace with Syria. He described the announcement as "a very, very meaningful statement," noting that the statement from the Prime Minister's Office cited a goal of "comprehensive" peace. "The word 'comprehensive' means that the Palestinians will be at least a part of the talks, or will be involved," said Liel. Furthermore, he noted, the announcement that the peace talks would proceed within the framework of the US-sponsored 1991 Madrid Conference suggested American support for the process. "I think Bush gave the permission [for peace talks] when he was here," Liel claimed. Liel was not suspicious about Olmert's motives for announcing the talks at this time, observing that Olmert had been working on the issue of peace with Syria for over a year. "I think [Olmert] might be lucky that these things were right at the time that he's in deep trouble, but he worked on it hard for 15 months," said Liel. "He deserves the credit." Liel also felt optimistic about the chances that Syria would decrease its ties with Iran and Hizbullah as a condition for peace, and said that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not negotiate peace with Israel "unless he was ready to change his behavior in the region." "Such a statement, done simultaneously from Damascus and Jerusalem, is a very major development in Syrian-Iranian relations, even if the Syrians won't admit it. We shouldn't underestimate the courage of Assad here," remarked Liel. Maoz told the Post that any Syrian willingness to cut ties with Iran and Hizbullah would stem from pragmatism. "Going with Iran and Hizbullah is a war [Damascus] cannot win. It is in the interest of Syria to get back the Golan Heights, to have some influence in Lebanon, to get the financial support of the Arab countries and the United States," said Maoz. Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University and formerly chief of the Syrian desk for IDF Intelligence, believes that Syria would like to avoid US influence. "Relations with the United States and Europe is nothing that the Syrian regime is looking for, because the Americans and Europeans will start asking about human rights and political freedoms which the Syrian regime would not like to answer," Kedar told the Post. Like Maoz, Kedar was suspicious of the timing of the announcement from Olmert's office, and drew parallels between Olmert's moves toward peace with Syria and former prime minister Ariel Sharon's 2004 announcement of his plan to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip while facing his own legal woes. When Sharon announced the plan to leave Gaza, said Kedar, "all the media, all the Left gave him a moratorium from the investigations... this was clear. And now Olmert wants to repeat the same thing." "The Syrians read and know what his situation is, and they know that this is the time to squeeze him to give everything, only to save his neck from the rope," he surmised.