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

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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel

If I were Prime Minister: I'd end the war on drugs

Patrick Hennessey
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power