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Olmert Now Expected To Engage Assad In Political Process

At Present Vast Majority Of Israelis Do Not Believe Syria Really Ready For Peace

Most Israelis Opposed To Total Withdrawal of Golan Heights


As forecast by IsraCast, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now ready to actively explore the intentions of Syria President Bashaar Assad. Olmert had to fill two necessary requirements: first the greenlight from U.S. President George W. Bush and second a new and respected defense minister, to ease the jitters of an Israeli public which has grave doubts about Olmert's capabilties after the Second Lebanon War.


The Yediot Ahronot newspaper reports that Bush gave his approval in a telephone conversation with Olmert on Independence Day in May. Next week, the Labor Party selects a new party leader who is destined to become defense minister. So, the two obstacles barring an Israeli acceptance of the Syrian offer have been removed. Within twenty-four hours after Olmert PM told the security cabinet that he was ready for peace talks without prior condition a Syrian official said: ' Our position remains consistent. We are ready to renew negotiations for peace and are interested in working for peace '.

Look for the Israeli-Syrian track to start picking up momentum all signs appear to be 'Go'. Olmert's waiting for U.S. approval has come under fire in Israel with comments like: 'What is Israel a vassal of the U.S.? Are we no more than a banana republic dependent on America's interests, not our own?' However, like it or not this is also part of the 'special relationship' between Israel and U.S. that dictates that all Israeli prime ministers must tread lightly when American interests are involved. It is a partnership with a senior and a junior partner, how could it be otherwise considering the disparity between the two states. At times, it is riven with paradox.

A major cause of the inept performance by IDF ground forces in the Second Lebanon War can be linked to the U.S. destruction of the Iraqi army. This in effect eliminated the threat to Israel from the Eastern front comprised of the Iraqi and Syrian armies.Not that this was America's motivation or that Jerusalem encouraged Washington to topple Saddam Hussein. So, Israeli politicians eager for budget cuts and the IDF decided it was a waste of money and resources to maintain a high level of ground force capability. The result was the IDF's failure on the ground to root out Hezbollah fighters launching short range Katyusha rockets that could not be taken out by air power.

As for Olmert's dragging his feet over Syria, could he have annoyed Bush by engaging Assad politically when Syria was collaborating with the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq? Former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy has disclosed that even Ariel Sharon had to bow to the U.S. President in accepting adverse aspects of the Road Map because Bush need the support of Britain's Tony Blair.Prospects: It is hard to find one Israeli expert on Syria, academic or military, who is willing to go out on a limb and say that Syrian President Bashar Assad is sincere about making peace with Israel. The Syrian dictator obviously gains by virtue of a peace process with Israel, by improving his ' evil axis ' image. But is Assad on the level? Is he ready to give or simply to get when he goes to the table? Perhaps Assad doesn't even know himself at this stage? He's been kicked out of Lebanon, faces an international tribunal, his Iranian alliance may have put him in the wrong corner and he also faces the ire of the U.S. for backing terrorism in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In previous contacts, his father, former president Hafez Assad demanded an Israeli commitment to total withdrawal as a condition for just entering negotiations. Most Israelis are skeptical and rightly so.

 Let's not forget that impacable Syria ranks with the Palestinians when it comes to even recognizing Israel's right to exist. The Baath regime of the minority Alawite sect is notorious for its brutality. During Muslim Brotherhood unrest in Hamma,  Basho's father Hafez Assad , ordered the massacre of over  20,000 male teenagers and men. Damascus also adopted a campaign of assassination and terror to maintain its domination of Lebanon which it views as part of greater Syria. In the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri , a Syrian opponent , Syrian agents were suspected and Assad now faces the possibility of an international tribunal. Moreover, Syria has forged a strategic alliance with Iran which warns that the countdown has started for wiping Israel off the map. In fact, Syria is the supply route for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Some of the sophisticated Russian anti - tank missiles, that wreaked havoc on IDF tanks and troops last summer, were supplied to Hezbollah from Syria.In recent years, Syria apparently with Iranian funding, has been on a buying spree of Russian weapons including advanced ground to air missiles. The Syrian army is known to be armed with chemical missiles capable of targeting all of Israel.

Syria, then is an enemy to be taken very seriously. On one hand, Assad says he is ready for peace with Israel, on the other he rattles his sabre more since Israel's failure to win decisively against Hezbollah in last summer's war. Although Israeli deterrence may have been weakened in Lebanon, most military experts believe that if Syria were to launch a war against Israel, it could spell the end of the Alawite regime in Syria. As opposed to the limited counter - guerrilla campaign launched against Hezbollah, all of Syria would be targeted. So, on the face of it, the threat of total war with Syria seems improbable.

Indeed IDF intelligence has revealed that although the Syrian army has been stepping up its readiness, there is no indication that Syria is preparing to go to war in the near future. U.N. observers on the Golan Heights have also verified that the Syrian army is abiding by the cease-fire agreement. However, Israeli intelligence officials also note that the mass of Syrian armor is deployed in bases around Damascus which is only 25 miles from the Golan Heights. Given the order they could race to the Golan within several hours. Therefore, although the Syrian army is in a defensive mode this could change literally overnight. The Hezbollah war also revealed the vulnerability of Israeli civilians to missile attacks. The other option would be for the Syrians to launch a limited, local strike say against the Israeli observation post on Mount Hermon and then count on the U.N. Security Council to impose a swift cease - fire. (In fact, before the IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar considered this an Egyptian contingency along the Suez Canal, but he did not foresee the massive offensive that later took place).

In any case, the IDF has launched an intensive ground training program since the Second Lebanon War while the Syrian Army has done the same. The Israeli media, that revels in scare headlines has been beating the tom-toms, pouring fuel on the flames. Cabinet Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer went so far as to warn about a possible war this summer. Several weeks ago, Olmert sent a message to Assad declaring Israel has no intention of attacking Syria. One intelligence assessment is that Syria is worried that the U.S. might strike Iran's nuclear facilities this summer drawing Israel and Syria into war. The danger exists of a self- fulfilling prophecy or miscalculation by one or other of the sides. Quo Vadis Assad? Is Syrian President Bashar on the level about making peace?

The Syrians demand they get everything that Egypt did in its peace pact with Israel. Buts are the Syrians ready to provide similar security guarantees.

For example, the actual security border between Israel and Egypt is on the Suez Canal, over 100 miles from the national border. The Egyptians agreed on the demilitarization of their Sinai territory. Security arrangements will be a key component of any Israeli - Syrian peace treaty. As for the national border, the Syrians demand a return to the June 4th line on the Sea of Galilee itself. This was never part of any international border in the past.

As for the Golan Heights the Syrians will demand a total return and the evacuation of the thriving Israeli towns and villages built there since 1967. It was from those heights of over 2,000 feet that Syrian gunners continually shelled Israeli population centers in the Hula Valley below. A poll by the Maariv newspaper indicates that 44% of Israelis oppose any Golan evacuation; 40% would support a partial pullout while only 10% would go for a total withdrawal. But then again, this is linked to the vast majority of Israelis who do not believe that Assad truly wants peace. Seventy- four percent believe he does not, only 17% believe he does. But that would likely change dramatically if Assad would follow in the footsteps of the late Anwar Sadat who came to Jerusalem to declare ' No More War!'

 Footnote: Although there is no real political process with the Palestinians at present, nor is one likely in the foreseeable future, a new Israeli -Syrian would relegate the Palestinians to the back burner. Israel would also seek a halt to Syria's hosting the Palestinian terror headquarters in its capital. An Israeli-Syrian peace would have to include a severance of Syria's strategic ties with Iran and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The benefits would be great but so are the risks and that's why some Israeli politicians are talking about some sort of joint Israeli - Syrian administration that would recognize Syrian sovereignty over the Golan but not evict the Israeli communities there.

The fact that the Palestinians continue to rocket Israel from the Gaza Strip, after the total evacuation, it will not be easy to build an Israeli consensus for more total withdrawals. Since the Yom-Kippur War in 1973, Syria has refrained from any direct attacks on Israel, and this can be attributed to Israel now having the upper hand on the Golan Heights. Critics of a withdrawal contend that Israel's presence on the Golan deters Syria from going to war. But under today's pastoral scene on the Golan could smolder the embers that one day might flare up into a conflagration.

David Essing

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