- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

TEL AVIV - Benjamin Netanyahu’s swearing-in Tuesday as prime minister and his selection of Ehud Barak as defense minister set off a flurry of speculation that Israel’s new government would turn its attention to negotiating with Syria.

In previous terms as prime minister, both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak indicated a willingness to relinquish territory on the strategic Golan Heights for a peace deal.

Such an agreement could not only sidestep potential tensions with the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also weaken the alliance between Syria and Iran, a nation with nuclear ambitions that Israel considers a threat to its existence, analysts say.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak “see eye to eye on a variety of issues, including the hope that a peace with Syria would lead to a strategic realignment in the region,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The idea of breaking off Syria from Hezbollah and Iran is sufficiently tantalizing that they will test that proposition.”

Politically, such a deal would be a hard sell for Mr. Netanyahu, who would have to face down opposition among right-wing hard-liners in his coalition and within his own Likud Party.

Just days before Israelis went to the polls in February, Mr. Netanyahu paid a visit to the Golan Heights, where he backed continued Israeli control over the strategic region that Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

Referring to the stronghold that resisted the Romans during the Jewish Revolt in the first century, Mr. Netanyahu declared, “Gamla shall not fall again.”

Despite those remarks, a foreign-policy aide to the new prime minister said the Syrian talks aren’t being ruled out.

“It won’t go off the radar,” said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the U.S. “But let’s wait and see.”

Israeli settlers who live on the Golan Heights organized a seminar for reporters in an attempt to dampen such speculation.

“There’s constant fear that pressure will fall on Bibi and make it an issue,” said David Stein, a seminar organizer. Bibi is a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.

Others called the idea of Mr. Netanyahu trading the Golan for a peace treaty with Syria far-fetched, given the prime minister’s reputation as a hard-liner who looks askance at the concept of trading land for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

“The name of the game with Netanyahu is managing conflicts, not resolving them,” said Akiva Eldar, a diplomatic columnist for the left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper. “So the expectation is for him not to make things worse.”

Mr. Netanyahu has attempted to soften his hard-line image in recent days, including remarks to the Israeli parliament Tuesday in which he praised Islamic culture and said: “Israel has always, and today more than ever, striven to reach full peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world.”

He made no mention of a future Palestinian state.

During his first term in office from 1996 to 1999, Mr. Netanyahu conducted secret talks with Syria’s then-President Hafez Assad through U.S. businessman Ron Lauder.

Though Mr. Netanyahu later acknowledged the talks, he denied agreeing to give up the Golan Heights. As prime minister in the final year of the Clinton administration, Mr. Barak also negotiated with Syria.

More recently, the government of Ehud Olmert conducted indirect talks through the Turkish government, but those negotiations ended with Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip.

“We’re back at the beginning,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official who conducted exploratory talks with Syria several years ago.