Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear to the cabinet on Sunday that one reason Israel is not embracing recent overtures for negotiations from Syria is American opposition. Olmert said that with US President George W. Bush having taken a firm stand against engaging Syria - going against the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton panel - and with the international community demanding that Syria improve its conduct, now was not the time for Israel to throw Syria a lifeline and help it to emerge from international isolation. At the same time, Olmert said the cabinet would hold a comprehensive debate on policy toward Syria in the near future.
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A senior cabinet official said Olmert's comments at the meeting did not imply that if the US changed its policy regarding engaging Syria, Israel would necessarily follow suit.
The official said that even if Bush gave a green light for Israeli-Syrian negotiations, Israel would still have to decide whether the price Syria would demand - the return of the entire Golan Heights, plus or minus a few meters along the Kinneret - would be enough to pull Syria out of the "axis of evil" orbit.
Diplomatic officials have been saying in recent weeks that there is no guarantee that even if Israel returned the Golan, Syria would break its ties with Iran and cease its support for Hizbullah and Hamas.
Channel 2 reported Sunday night that a third-party intermediary with the Syrians said Damascus was looking for a secret channel of communication with Israel. According to the source, Syria has the capability to control Hamas, but not, as Israel maintains, Hizbullah.
The intermediary also said Syria was not planning a war with Israel for the summer of 2007, helping to assuage fears in the Israeli intelligence community that a Syrian offensive will follow what was generally perceived in the Arab world as a failed Israeli war against Hizbullah in the summer of 2006.
According to the source, Syria is ready for cooperative endeavors in tourism and industry, and Israelis would be able to travel freely from Haifa to Istanbul via Syria.
The idea of a secret channel with the Syrians was also brought up at the cabinet meeting, and advocated by Minister-without-Portfolio Ya'acov Edri (Kadima).
Edri's was one of a wide range of opinions expressed at the cabinet regarding how Israel should react to the flurry of Syrian overtures, with Vice Premier Shimon Peres (Kadima) saying Israel should not go against the US position on the matter, and Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) cautioning against running after the Syrians. Yishai's party colleague Communications Minister Ariel Attias and Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) said Israel should "check into the matter."
Peretz, meanwhile, said Israel needed to convene an "emergency" cabinet meeting to determine "what our position is, and not respond to every other sentence." He said Israel had to decide whether it had preconditions to negotiations with Damascus.
"This issue is complex," he said. "Every agreement has a price tag. The price tag with the Syrians is clear. The question is whether we see strategic importance in cutting off Syria from radical terrorism, and in preventing cooperation with Hizbullah."
Olmert told the cabinet Israel had to ask why Assad "is making these declarations specifically today, after the publication of the Baker report in Washington, after President Bush took a firm stance on the subject, and when the entire international community is demanding that the Syrians stop stirring up war and pitting its forces against the Saniora government in Lebanon. Is this right, when the whole international community seeks to put pressure on Khaled Mashaal in Syria?"
Olmert seemed, however, to be most concerned about the opposition from the US, contending that at a time "when the president of the United States - Israel's most important ally, with whom we have a system of strategic relations - is struggling from every angle... against all the forces that want to impede him," Israel had no right to "do the opposite" and negotiate with an enemy country.
Reporting to the cabinet on his recent trip to Germany, he said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier returned from a visit to Damascus two weeks ago "disappointed."
He emphasized that before Israel develops any new policies regarding Syria, "it is advisable to weigh things with restraint and caution."
The debate on Syria came a day after Syrian President Bashar Assad called on Israel to accept his proposal for opening peace negotiations, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the return of the Golan Heights was not a precondition to talks.