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News Analysis: Mideast Turmoil May Boost Israeli-Syrian Negotiations

Adam Gonn

Jerusalem (Xinhua) — The prospect of restarting the suspended peace negotiations between Israel and Syria may be advanced by the current unrest in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to reach out to Israel, he will find a willing partner for negotiations.

Barak’s remarks came a few days after it was revealed that the United States Senator John Kerry had been working with Assad over the last couple of months on a plan to renew the negotiations.

Israel hopes that a peace deal with Syria will deprive Iran of a strategic ally and weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon. A peace agreement would also force the Palestinian organizations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to move their headquarters from the Syrian capital Damascus, which Israel hopes will weaken them in the same way that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was undermined when it was forced to leave Lebanon in 1982.

Syria hopes that in addition to regaining the Golan Heights, the deal will lead to better relations with the United States and increased foreign investment in its economy.

Analysts speaking to Xinhua Wednesday said the regional turmoil will have effect on the prospect of reaching a peace deal between Israel and Syria. However, some said it would have a positive effect while others disagreed.

Regional Effect

Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter- Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya told Xinhua that there is a sense of urgency in both Israel and Syria to push for negotiations now.

Israel is feeling frustrated with the lack of progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and the Syrian president is fearful that it might suffer the same pain as other leaders across the region which have fallen due to protests, according to Karmon.

“The Bashar regime must be under huge psychological and political pressure and will try to change the situation,” Karmon said. He noted that 80 percent of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim while the ruling elite are Alawite.

The Israeli-Syrian negotiations have mainly focused on the status of the strategically located Golan Heights which Israel captured in 1967 and have since annexed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently said Israel was interested in negotiations with Syria but would never give up the Golan Heights. However, Karmon pointed out that the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was willing to offer almost all of the heights.

“If there is a will like in Egypt during Sadat, it can be managed,” Karmon said, referring to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat who in 1979 signed the peace treaty with Israel.

“Even Netanyahu and the Israeli military and security establishments are very eager to activate an agreement with Syria, ” Karmon added.

Mutual Benefits

Karmon’s view is shared by Moshe Moaz from the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who agrees that there are good chances of reaching a deal.

Analysts like Moaz maintain that although the Israeli public is against giving up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, they are not against peace itself.

“There are good chances but it’s not simple,” Moaz said, adding that the Israeli demands to Syria would “include a demilitarization of the Golan Heights, an arrangement of the water, and also Syria cooling relations with Iran and containing Hezbollah.”

In Moaz’s opinion, a deal is in the interest of both Israel and Syria.

In order to convince the skeptical Israeli public about the Syrian intent for peace, Syria, when negotiations were conducted 10 years ago, did agree to American supervision of the Golan Heights.

According to Moaz, one additional factor providing reassurance for Israel is that “the balance of power between Israel and Syria is so much in favor of Israel.”

He believes, however, that the Israeli demands on Syria’s relations with Iran and Hezbollah will be difficult for Damascus to agree to. He added that it would be possible for Assad to sell the idea to his people, especially if peace would mean economic benefits, but he doubted that Israel has the kind of leaders who would be willing to make a deal.

Risks Taking

Not everyone holds an optimistic view. Mordechai Kedar from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University said the regional unrest has made Israeli leaders more skeptical of signing peace agreements, because the governments in the Middle East are not as stable as they once were.

“Israel is very cautious about getting into negotiations because you never know what will be in the future, especially in these days in the Middle East,” Kedar told Xinhua.

Contrary to what Karmon and Moaz said, Kedar argued that many Israelis are warning the government not to enter any deals with either Syrians or the Palestinians because the situation in the Arab world is so unstable.

“If the Egyptian regime was subject to such a change, nobody today can get insurance from any other government that it can continue with a peace process with Israel,” Kedar said, referring to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was considered a strategic and dependable ally to Israel but was forced to step down after demonstrations.

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