- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel is mulling the reopening of peace negotiations with Syria — frozen for seven years — after a monthlong war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, according to newspaper reports.

After years of ignoring the possibility of talks with Syria because of the U.S. effort to isolate President Bashar Assad, a growing number of voices is calling on the Israeli government to consider talks with Damascus, which could help sever the central link between Hezbollah and its main weapons sponsor, Iran.

The calls come just days after Mr. Assad threatened Israel with war if it didn’t opt for peace negotiations and promised that Israel would be destroyed by future Arab generations.

But yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said Israel could take advantage of the political reshuffling after the war to cut a peace deal — though he did not say with whom.

Proponents of the Syrian overture think a deal with Damascus would weaken Hezbollah and Iran.

On the other hand, Israel must consider the diplomatic ramifications of starting talks with a regime that supports militants based in the Palestinian territories.

“In the short run, the mission has to be the separation of Syria from Hezbollah and Iran,” said Avshalom Vilan, an Israeli parliament member from the dovish Meretz party.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a Labor Party member, also is reported to have spoken of investigating the potential for negotiations with Syria.

Mr. Vilan said Arab-Israeli wars often have been followed by successful peace talks. The best example is the landmark treaty between Israel and Egypt, which was concluded six years after the countries fought to a draw in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But peace with Syria would be politically difficult because it means returning the Golan Heights — the strategic plateau that overlooks much of northern Israel. The move also risks further enhancing Hezbollah’s status as the one Arab organization that succeeded in holding its ground against Israel.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has commissioned an internal review of Israeli-Syrian peace talks during the 1990s and an assessment of the prospects for a renewal of the negotiations, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported.

The study will include interviews with former Israeli negotiators with Syria, such as Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador to the United States, and Uri Saguy, a former Army chief of intelligence.

Peace negotiations with Syria are considered relatively straightforward. The major stumbling block is deciding how close to the Sea of Galilee the border will run.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly is opposed to opening any diplomatic channel that would help end the Syrian isolation imposed by the United States.

During the monthlong war in Lebanon, Israel came close to sparking a wider war by hitting targets near the Syrian border. Syria responded by putting its troops on high alert and threatening war with Israel.

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