Israel, Syria dismiss peace talks

I've been looking at Israeli reactions to yesterday's revelation that a secret negotiations between Tel Aviv and Damascus had been going on since 2004 -- negotiations that yesterday Ehud Olmert rushed to dismiss, even insulting the mediators involved. This from Uzi Benzimann in Haaretz:

It is enough to observe the panicked responses in Jerusalem to the report by Akiva Eldar yesterday in Haaretz on the outlines of an agreement between Israel and Syria cobbled together in unofficial talks, to feel yet again that generations of governments of Israel, including the present one, are responsible in no small way for prolonging the Israeli-Arab conflict. Unlike the first 30 years of the state's existence, when the Arab world refused to recognize Israel, its neighbors have gradually come to terms with the reality starting in 1977. And since then, the Arab world has also started to bear responsibility, at least partially, for fanning the embers of the conflict.


Olmert's bureau raced yesterday to deny any connection, even a passive one, to the talks that took place in Europe on the Israel-Syrian conflict. Associates of Ariel Sharon, who, according to the report, was aware of the secret negotiations, did the same. The insulted added their voices to the deniers: A senior minister told Israel Radio that he is privy to all secret diplomatic moves and if he was not party to this, then there was nothing to be party to. And MK Yuval Steinitz said that he had spoken at the time with Sharon, who told him he ruled out any relationship with the present Syrian regime because of its ties to terror. A united front of deniers emerged, as if on command, to clarify that the Israeli government was not involved nor is it tainted by an attempt to come to an arrangement with Bashar Assad.

This is a ludicrous spectacle, the irony of which fades in light of its depressing significance: Israel's leaders are trying hard to prove to its citizens that they are not involved in a move to end 60 years of hostility with its Syrian neighbor. These leaders are kowtowing to residents of the Golan Heights, the settlers and the American government. The desire to mollify them seems to be the government's top priority; otherwise, it is impossible to understand the complete and utter denial of the efforts reported by Eldar. It is as if Olmert decided that a confession on his part to any involvement in a channel of communication with Assad is politically lethal.
An editorial in the same issue basically argues along the same lines, accusing Olmert of using US hostility to Syria to distance himself from the deal (although it mistakenly states that Syria is a member of the "axis of evil").

Josh Landis has a long, comprehensive post with some Syrian reactions. As I suspected, it would be denied because it's not a great deal for Syria -- it's more the kind of deal they might be forced to accept if their backs were to the wall.

It now seems clearer that this peace initiative has little chance of going anywhere until the Israeli government is ready to start public talks on this issue -- it has been unwilling to seriously discuss peace with Syria since the mid-1990s at least -- perhaps using the secret document as a basis of sorts.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.