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The indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations currently taking place through Turkish mediation have become quite focused and have been officially confirmed by the two parties. A move towards direct negotiations could be expedited, now that a long leg of talks towards reaching this stage has been completed.
It is inevitable that Israel's internal political developments - mainly the investigations of corruption charges against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - will take their toll on the negotiations whether Olmert is charged and forced to resign or not. According to Israeli law, it is possible to avoid dissolving the Knesset and going to early elections if a simple majority of its members (61 MKs) support a new candidate for prime minister. Olmert announced his readiness to call for early party elections, without fixing a date. This was perceived as foot-dragging to stay in office as long as possible. His coalition partners pressed him to set a date for a party vote for a new leader, hinting that they would support a new bill to dissolve the Knesset if he failed to do so. Faced with the possibility of an impending government crisis leading to the dissolution of his coalition and early national elections, he agreed to set a date for the party election in September - aborting the opposition's bid to dissolve the Knesset, and prolonging his coalition's tenure.
The Kadima election will still allow the formation of a new government led by its newly elected leader without dissolving the Knesset and going to national elections. This seems to be a temporary solution. Kadima's major coalition partner, the Labor party, argues that Olmert has lost credibility in the eyes of the Israeli public and that he should step down regardless of the investigation's results. Olmert is nevertheless holding his ground and set on running again for the Kadima leadership come September. Three months down the road, a new crisis could erupt and early national elections could still be held. Meanwhile, the current government is proceeding with its negotiations with Syria.
Needless to say, going to early elections, as the opposition demands, will mean a further delay in the negotiations or even their total collapse. The right-wing parties are pushing for early elections, hoping that Netanyahu will win, simply to prevent the conclusion of any peace agreement with Syria that would lead to Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Looking for a Favorable Deal

In effect, this is not the first time during the last 15 years that Syrian-Israeli back-channel negotiations over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights have been held. And these ongoing negotiations will possibly be added to the list of past attempts that had been on the very verge of achieving results and then stopped short of that goal.
The Syrian leadership, in spite of its interest in reaching a peace agreement with Israel, cannot give up its ambitions for a regional leadership role, and will always look for a deal that can guarantee both. In order to maintain their regional leadership, they will refrain from making any concessions on a number of fixed positions - positions that have traditionally formed the framework of Syrian policies and political actions concerning the return of the occupied Golan Heights or the settling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. To counter Western - mainly American - efforts to isolate Syria, the al-Assad regime was building and strengthening its alignment with radical movements in the region, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, while maintaining special relations with Iran. This would provide Syria with a wide margin for maneuvering and bargaining in its efforts to survive the pressure and to play a regional role.
Evidence suggests that the current Syrian leadership is concerned with reaching a peace agreement with Israel that would allow it to come out of its state of United States-led international isolation. The Syrians do not hide their fears, voicing their recriminations against Washington, whom they accuse of weaving conspiracies against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the same way they did against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Syrians argue that U.S. policy against them aims to serve long-term Israeli and American interests and to pave the way for securing Israeli military dominance and hegemony over the region. Israel will thus be the only military superpower in the Middle East with a nuclear option, allowing it to impose its will on its neighbors.
Ironically, the Syrians believe that the American interest to get out of the Iraq quagmire in a face-saving manner plays in their favor and hampers the American ability to take action against Syria. On the contrary, they believe that the time is ripe for striking a good deal with both Israel and the U.S.

The Golan Heights - More Than a Security Issue

The core of the Israeli-Syrian differences over the Golan Heights will likely concentrate on the security aspect because of their strategic location overlooking the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias) and the Israeli kibbutzim in that region. Israel can argue that the presence of the Syrian army there, mainly the artillery, poses a serious threat to an area that was Israeli-populated before 1967. This issue could be addressed by adopting the Sinai method which was agreed upon between Israel and Egypt. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula to its international borders with Egypt. The Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty, but with three zones of gradual arms limitation under the supervision of multinational forces - to the satisfaction of Israeli security concerns.
But an examination of the Israeli policy and political statements shows that it's not only security concerns that are on Israel's mind. Israel, tempted by its prolonged occupation of the Golan Heights and the facts it has created on the ground, including exploiting natural resources, had decided earlier in 1981 to annex the Golan Heights and applied Israeli law and jurisdiction to it. There are around 20,000 Jewish settlers in the Golan, living in 30 settlements that were built and expanded within the framework of Israeli government policies, according to which the Golan Heights form part of the land of Israel. Some Knesset members are among the residents of the Jewish settlements there.
In light of the recent talk about Syrian-Israeli negotiations and the possibility of Olmert's government making concessions regarding the Golan Heights or parts of it, some 61 MKs took the initiative to sign a petition calling upon the Knesset to issue a law stipulating that a two-thirds majority vote in the Knesset is required to accept concessions on any part of the Golan.
Public opinion polls in Israel show that a majority of 53-57% are against Israel withdrawing from the Golan Heights and handing it back to Syria. They claim that the Syrian front has been quiet since the disengagement agreements after the 1973 war - not a single shot has been fired from there towards Israel; therefore, there is no need to withdraw and make peace with Syria.
However, the Israeli decision to annex the Golan Heights and consider that area part of Israel is in contravention of international law and a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the annexation has not been recognized by any country in the world. Additionally, the Druze Arab population of the Golan - which slightly exceeds the number of the Jewish settlers there - define themselves as Syrian citizens, maintain relations with their homeland Syria, and aspire to the day of their liberation and return to Syrian sovereignty.

A Contentious Strip of Land

In all its past attempts at negotiating a settlement with Syria, Israel has insisted on keeping parts of the occupied Heights under its control. But the core of the dispute is a thin strip of land between the two countries. For Syria, it would allow it to retain its access to the Sea of Galilee; for Israel, it would prevent Syria from doing just that. Defining to which borders Israel should withdraw has always been front and center stage, but in the background is access to water.
It is a known fact that until June 4, 1967, Syria was in control of that strip of land, which was actually a part of Mandatory Palestine, along, but outside, the Syrian borders, and it defined the boundaries separating Syria from Israel as of June 4, 1967. The traditional Syrian stand since the end of the June 1967 war has been that Israel should withdraw to those lines. In contrast, Israel has the presumption to claim that Syria should abide by the international borders between Syria and Mandatory Palestine and to leave to Israel that strip of land, which it had controlled since the 1948 war until June1967 - claiming that this land is part of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). Thus the dispute between Israel and Syria has always been whether Israel should withdraw to the 1948 Armistice Lines (the June 4, 1967 lines), as Syria demands, or to the international borders between Mandatory Palestine and Syria, as Israel wants.
Syria has always insisted on retaining its access to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and it seems that it will not be easy for the Syrian leadership to give up this long-standing position. Similarly and within the same context, Syrian negotiators have constantly referred to the precedent set by the Egyptian-Israeli agreement, which returned up to the last inch of land in the Sinai Peninsula after Egypt insisted with admirable obduracy to recover it - even delving into exhaustive negotiations over the Hilton Taba Hotel until it regained every bit of Egyptian land. Thus it is inevitable that the Syrian leadership - which condemned Anwar Sadat's initiative in 1977 and took a stand against it at the time - would be unable to retreat from that position and accept anything that falls short of the results Sadat had achieved.
According to media reports, a high-ranking Syrian official, when asked about the matter of sovereignty over the Golan, said "Syria is looking after its main interests." And when asked about the possibility of Syria's leasing the land to Israel for a number of years, he said that the most important thing is that Syria eventually regains its sovereignty over the land. This answer leaves the door open for speculations that Syria may consider its goal of regaining sovereignty over the Heights could be fulfilled while the land is under lease to Israeli management. Some reports speak already about tourist and industrial parks on these leased lands as part of the arrangements with Syria.

Paradigms to Follow

There are two previous paradigms Syria can learn from: The first is the Egyptian paradigm, which was originally based on the principle of recovering land as land, while accepting conditions of restricting military presence within the Sinai. The Sinai was eventually divided into three zones and the type of weapons allowed in each was defined, while Israel was unable to retain an inch of Egyptian land. Egypt claimed that it regained its national sovereignty over the Sinai, and Israel claimed that it achieved substantial arrangements to address its security concerns. The second is the Jordanian paradigm, whereby Jordan regained sovereignty over Jordanian land in Wadi 'Araba with long-term leasing agreements on parts of these lands, to the satisfaction of Israel.
The essence of each of these agreements between Israel and any party involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the issue of normalization as a basic and debatable issue. However, it is difficult for one to imagine a situation in which a peace agreement is signed between Syria and Israel without both sides being ready to normalize relations even at the official level, as is the case currently between Egypt and Israel. As for the grassroots level, experience has shown that true peace and normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors cannot be achieved without a comprehensive peace settlement that ends the Israeli occupation of all Arab lands and leads to the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.
Any progress on the Syrian-Israeli negotiation track will, in turn, open the door for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East, by creating a better climate for progress on both the Palestinian and Lebanese tracks, including the role of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon, due to their special relations with Syria and its influence on them. This relationship will always be controlled by "major Syrian interests," as Syrian spokesmen say.

The European Model

In the final analysis, we should realize that we live in a changing world, where even some classic concepts and definitions are being rethought. The European experience, with its centuries of bloody wars among a number of European countries, has proven that the insistence on political boundaries and the exercise of sovereignty in the traditional sense are not the only factors that guarantee peoples' well-being and happiness. Additionally, the funds spent on war will only bring poverty and destruction. Europe has realized, after having paid a hefty price with human souls, that the economy is the basis for power and that fighting wars to gain more land and regions has not been beneficial. It only fed their rulers' lust for control and possession, and who sometimes resorted to arousing nationalistic and chauvinistic feelings among the public in order to justify and mitigate the fire of their wars.
Today, Europe has become a world economic power, and borders between the two deadly enemies, France and Germany, are something a traveler or a salesperson hardly feels any more. Europe has gone down the path of economic unity and has moved on towards institution-building for advanced models of political unity that can preserve the national character of each individual state, and, at the same time, reconcile them with common European interests.
People in the Middle East need to realize - especially land-grabbing fanatics who can only think of controlling more and more Arab land - that the future lies in the economy as a basis for people's well-being. A Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, strife and wars, and that acknowledges peoples' right to freedom, self-determination and independence, and that devotes all its resources to construction and development, is the only one that can offer a better future for all the children of the region.

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