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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore