- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

TEL AVIV — New Syrian peace overtures have divided the Israeli government and public, with many prominent figures arguing that the country may be missing a historic opportunity to isolate Iran and weaken Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have publicly opposed engaging Syria, while Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter support doing so.

“Bashar Assad is probably the first Syrian president since 1949 who is almost begging for peace. … But [Mr. Olmert] is reacting to the Syrian peace offers with disdain,” complained historian Tom Segev in the Ha’aretz newspaper.

Repeating an offer first made three years ago, Mr. Assad said in a weekend interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. that he wants to negotiate a normalization of relations with Israel.

An Olmert spokeswoman responded to Reuters news agency that Israel will not deal with Mr. Assad unless he shows his sincerity by shutting down the Damascus offices of militant groups such as Hamas and by halting support for Hezbollah.

But some Israelis say that is a departure from the nation’s long-standing policy.

“The traditional policy of Israel is that we are open to negotiations with anyone who is ready to talk about peace,” said Shlomo Brom, a former general and a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

“Now there is this strange demand that we have to know if [Assad] is serious or not serious. We are looking for excuses.”

Mr. Brom suggested that Israel isn’t ready to give up the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War and home to about 20,000 Jewish settlers.

In the past, the Syrian government has mixed talk of peace with warnings of war. Mr. Assad said recently that the military was expecting an Israeli attack, while the foreign minister said during the recent war in Lebanon that he would be willing to serve as a soldier under the command of Hezbollah.

Peace talks between Israel and Syria last broke down in the first half of 2000 after the sides failed to reach agreement over how close the border would run to the Sea of Galilee. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ignored Mr. Assad’s first suggestion of peace negotiations in 2003.

Skeptics say peace negotiations simply would help Syria deflect international attention from an investigation into its links to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

It also would relieve pressure on Mr. Assad, who has been accused by the United States of assisting the insurgency in Iraq.

But others say Israel needs to adjust its priorities after the recent border war with the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, which was able to hit Israel with thousands of rockets reportedly provided by Iran and shipped through Syria.

“The broader lesson of this war is that we have to look for ways to weaken this Iran-Hezbollah arc, and Syria is the weakest link because it is not a Shi’ite state,” said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, an online Middle East journal.

“So we have to look for ways to persuade Syria to weaken its Iran connection, and cease support for terrorist organizations in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, which is a tall order.”

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