Leading article: A chance for peace that must not be spurned

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While the tensions between the US and Iran are building, the signals for Syria have become more ambivalent. On the one side, the White House has continued a rhetoric of confrontation, accusing the regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus of promoting terrorism in Iraq and Lebanon. On the other side, the Israeli political establishment, or at least sections of it, are signalling the possibilities of rapprochement and even peace.

A settlement between Syria and Israel would alter radically the prospects for the Middle East. It would at one and the same time end the most persistent state-to-state conflict between Israel and its neighbours and remove a source of trouble for the surrounding countries.

For the Israelis, it could offer the breakthrough that a weak and embattled prime minister, Ehud Olmert, needs after the bruising and unsuccessful invasion of Lebanon and the collapse into internecine conflict of the Palestinians. Peace with Syria would remove one of its most persistent foes, a source - so it says - of terrorism within and outside Israel, a base for several Palestinian extremist groups, a continuing source of meddling in Lebanon and a long-time ally of what it now sees as its most dangerous enemy, Iran.

At the same time, there are very good reasons why Damascus should also see the advantages of reaching an accord with its old foe. Assad's regime is weak and isolated. Like Olmert, the young president could do with a diplomatic breakthrough at the moment. His population is wearied with years of political oppression and low economic growth. Ejected from Lebanon, frozen out of international influence by the US, Syria needs the fresh start that a settlement with Israel might bring.

That, at any rate, seems to have been reason enough for the two sides to participate, at an unofficial level, in the Swiss-brokered Track 2 talks last year. The discussions reached a proposed settlement for the Golan Heights and the thorny issue of water access. What they didn't succeed in doing was gaining the formal backing of the Israeli government, or even the informal, but essential, support of the US.

This is not altogether surprising. For an administration as lacking popular support and parliamentary votes as Olmert's, to give up the Golan Heights and make peace with its enemy would require a considerable leap of faith and courage. The Heights have a special place in Israel's history, a strategic position taken in the 1967 war and retaken in 1973 only after fierce fighting and the very real threat that the Syrian forces could sweep down on the undefended settlements below. To retreat from the position now would to many military planners be an abnegation of security responsibility.

The real obstacle to an Israeli-Syrian accord at this time, however, lies less in Israel than in the US. Although the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker, the former secretary of state under Bush's father, strongly recommended talking directly to Syria, along with Iran, as a means out of the Iraqi impasse, the President and his advisers have felt this would be too bitter a pill to swallow. Instead, they have held to a vision of the Middle East which places Syria, alongside Iran, as the major sources of instability in the region and the insurgency in Iraq. As with Iran, the US has also seen in the instability of the regime in Damascus an opportunity to effect political change through pressure.

It's a logical view but a barren one. Syria is not a stable nor a likable regime. But it does seem to want peace and to re-enter the world community. Even if Israel doubts Assad's ability to deliver a deal and fears US disapproval, it would be failing in its duty to its own citizens if it did not pursue the possibilities now when it has the chance.

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