Israel and Syria are inching back to the negotiation table, although both sides are still not quite ready to sit down. In a number of statements in recent weeks, leaders and senior officials of both countries have indicated that they are open to resume talks that took place while Olmert was prime minister.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset Foreign and Defence Affairs committee last week that he received messages through French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the Syrians are willing to resume peace talks and are not insisting that Israel agree first to retreat from the Golan Heights. Mr Netanyahu also said that he preferred to continue using the French as a go-between instead of the Turkish government, which has recently engaged in a series of anti-Israel measures.
Faisal Makdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister responded in an interview saying that Syria still insists on using the Turkish channel and continues to hold that Israel must retreat to the pre-1967 border lines — but Israeli diplomatic sources still say that “both sides are edging back to the negotiations”.
IDF Military Intelligence Chief Major General Amos Yadlin said this week in a lecture that “Syria is currently firmly rooted in its alliance with Iran and Hizbollah, but this is not the natural place for Syria to be and we believe that they can be removed from the radical axis, and it is certainly in Israel’s interest to do this.”
“Syria is playing hard to get,” said a defence analyst, “they are not giving up on anything, their involvement in Lebanon, hosting Hamas headquarters, serving as a conduit for Iranian arms to Hizbollah and allowing jihadi fighters through to Iraq. They are not going to give up any of this before they have some clear achievements in negotiations, but there are also clear indications that they are open to talking about everything. The issues between Israel and Syria are very clear, and the solutions are also well known. They want the Golan Heights and American aid, and they know what they will have to do in exchange for that.”
Meanwhile, Israel made what could be seen as a step back from negotiations last week when the Netanyahu government supported a Knesset motion to necessitate by law a referendum on any withdrawal from the Golan. Aides to the prime minister assured that this should not create any obstacles for possible talks as a victory in any referendum on a peace deal is almost guaranteed.