ANALYSIS – SMALL PIECE OF LAND COULD SCUPPER ISRAEL-SYRIA TALKS

BY AKIVA ELDAR

The gap between the Syrian and Israeli positions lies in Damascus’ demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the July 4, 1967 lines and Jerusalem’s stance that any withdrawal must be to the international border.

On the ground, this gap is just several hundred meters, but the sticking point is Syria’s demand for land reaching the north-eastern shore of the Kinneret.

Unofficial contacts between the two sides via a Swiss channel, which lasted until summer 2006 and were driven by former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel, resulted in an agreement that the disputed area between the 1967 lines and the international border would be part of a “peace park” that would cover the entire Golan Heights. The Syrians agreed that Israelis would be able to visit the park during the day without any entry requirements.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad demanded that Israel honor a pledge by former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to the United States in which he promised that if all of Israel’s demands were met, it would withdraw to the 1967 lines.

The talks between the two sides include a range of issues, all of which will play a key role in the success of negotiations, to varying degrees.

WATER RESOURCES: Syria, which suffers from water shortages, recently told former U.S. president Jimmy Carter that it is willing to commit that it will not draw water from the Kinneret, but expects financial assistance for desalination plants and a commitment from Turkey that it will supply Syria with water.

EVACUATION OF SETTLEMENTS: In previous contacts between Israel and Syria, a rift emerged between the sides over a timetable for the removal of Israeli communities on the Golan Heights. Israel requested a 15-year period to evacuate settlements, while Syria envisioned a period of ten years for removal of these communities.

SYRIA’S TIES TO IRAN, HEZBOLLAH AND RADICAL PALESTINIAN GROUPS, INCLUDING HAMAS: Israel insisted that Syria commits in advance to sever ties with these parties, while Damascus maintained that this issue should be on the negotiating table with all other issues. In effect, Syria has rejected any preconditions in the talks.

AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT: Syria is standing by its request for U.S. involvement in the negotiations, and wants the U.S. to change its attitude to Damascus and President Bush’s inclusion of Syria in the “axis of evil.”

DEMILITARIZATION OF SYRIAN TERRITORY EAST OF THE AGREED BORDER: Syria previously demanded that Israel also create a demilitarized zone; an agreement on the extent of the two zones has not yet been reached.

NORMALIZATION OF TIES: Syria backed an Arab League resolution decision first adopted in 2002 at the Beirut conference to normalize ties with Israel in return for a complete withdrawal from all Arab lands captured in 1967. It is unclear if Syria would agree to the normalization requested by Israel before it cedes the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

GOLAN HEIGHTS: The Golan Heights Law which passed in 1981 confirmed Israel’s annexation of the Golan. This law could now make it difficult for the government to get the Knesset’s approval for settlement evacuation or withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Back in their day, both Rabin and Ehud Barak promised to bring any agreement to a referendum.

See Related: ISRAEL AND SYRIA TO HOLD PEACE TALKS MEDIATED BY TURKEY

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