Leading article: Israel and Syria: a deal that will have to be done

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The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is halfway through a trip to the Middle East, trying to drum up support for President Bush's new Iraq policy. Tony Blair undertook a whirlwind tour of the region before Christmas, and the EU foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, sets off there today. While none of these efforts has so far borne tangible fruit, this flurry of activity suggests a new international focus on the Middle East.

Almost one year after Hamas prevailed in Palestinian parliamentary elections, and six months after Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon halted all remaining diplomacy, the Quartet seems gradually to be reconstituting itself. There is a sense that the Middle East peace process may be getting back on track. As prospects of any sort of success recede in Iraq, is President Bush rediscovering an interest in a region where traditional diplomacy might still be productive? After all, both he and Mr Blair have their legacies to consider.

At a time when there are such straws in the wind, it is intriguing - at the very least - to learn that the months before the Lebanon war may not have been so fallow in Middle East political contacts as they seemed. The liberal Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, has just published details of what it said was a framework for a peace deal negotiated by representatives of Israel and Syria between 2004 and mid-2006. The deal contained few surprises. In essence, Israel agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 war, while Syria agreed to end its support for militant groups operating out of its territory and out of Lebanon.

This is the deal that has long been crying out to be concluded between Israel and Syria. And if there is ever a broader regional peace agreement, such concessions will surely be part of it. There should be no surprise either that contacts were begun while Ariel Sharon was still Israeli Prime Minister. It is entirely logical that the man who gambled on the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza should also have risked an opening to Syria.

Nor need the denials that came yesterday from Syria and from Israel's present Prime Minister be taken too seriously. Deniability is essential to exploratory diplomacy. That talks took place, and that they resulted in a draft agreement along the lines now disclosed, seems clear. What is not clear is the status of those talks - did they have the direct support of their respective governments, or were they conducted by self-appointed envoys effectively "freelancing"? It is not clear either whether an agreement would have come to anything, even if Mr Sharon had remained in power. That the details have come to light is proof of only one thing: the agreement as published is no longer on the table.

What it also shows, however, is that there were those in Israel and Syria who were - and perhaps remain - amenable to the sort of contact that the two countries must eventually begin if there is to be any Middle East settlement. The fact that the details were published suggests, too, that a strand of Israeli opinion is interested in broaching the issue of talking to Syria and would like to nudge Ehud Olmert in that direction.

Given that Mr Bush explicitly ruled out talks with Syria when he rejected the Iraq Study Group plan for Iraq, it seems doubtful that any new Israel-Syria contacts would enjoy US support. Disclosure of the now defunct plan could even be seen as a small protest against Mr Bush's approach. On the other hand, the usefulness of unlikely back-channels should never be underestimated. If the bad news is that one casualty of the Lebanon war was an Israeli opening to Syria, the good news might be that some Israelis have an appetite to try again.

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