Moscow May Host Middle East Follow-Up
Interest Growing in Talks On Israel-Syria Relations

By Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Russia and the United States are tentatively planning a second Middle East peace conference, in Moscow in early 2008, with major parties hoping to begin a comprehensive peace effort that would include direct talks between Israel and Syria, according to U.S., Russian, Arab and European officials.

Syria's delegate to this week's talks in Annapolis said yesterday that Damascus wants a Moscow gathering in order to begin negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights, a border region seized by Israel during the 1967 war. "It is our hope that we can revive the Syrian track in Moscow," Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad said in an interview before departing Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated that he hopes at some point to resume talks with Syria but cautioned that the time is not yet ripe. He said Syria must change its behavior, notably its support for Lebanon's Shiite militia Hezbollah.

"Conditions have not yet matured to the point where we can . . . start a meaningful dialogue," Olmert said yesterday in a small roundtable discussion with journalists. "They know exactly what I think."

But the presence of a Syrian delegation in Annapolis "may be the beginning of a reconsideration" on the part of Damascus, he said. Olmert said Bush indicated privately that he has no objection to an Israeli dialogue with Syria if Israel determines that such a move is in its own interest. Bush's only admonition to the Israelis, he said, was: "Don't surprise us."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Israeli defense establishment are more enthusiastic about reviving talks with Syria, U.S. officials and former envoys said. Barak "sees the strategic advantage vis-a-vis Iran and dealing with a government that can deliver, in contrast to the Palestinian Authority, which can't," said Martin S. Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who now heads the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Olmert has exchanged messages with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad over the past three months, including before and after the Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike on what experts say was a site of a nuclear program, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Syrian-Israeli track may be easier to solve than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, analysts said, because it is limited to one issue: the Golan Heights. The last peace effort, conducted by the Clinton administration in 2000, came within 50 meters of settling control of the territory. "The delicious irony is that a process designed to launch the Palestinian-Israeli track is likely to launch talks between Syria and Israel, and if you had to judge which process would have more chance of success, it'd be the Syrian track," Indyk said.

The United States has been quietly working with Russia on a sequel to the Annapolis conference, a senior State Department official said yesterday, noting that the agenda remains unclear. Russia has proposed meetings of experts in Moscow before the next conference to work on obstacles to a comprehensive peace process, Russian and European officials said.

But the Bush administration hopes that the process that began in Annapolis will spark a wider effort. "Our belief is that if the two parties can make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, that that could possibly lead to openings along other tracks," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday. "We are going to try to encourage parties on both sides -- the Arab side as well as the Israeli side -- to take advantage of any potential openings that they see there. It's going to be up to them, in large part, to determine what sort of energy they devote to those."

The State Department was complimentary about Syria's performance in Annapolis. "Most people listening to the comments of the deputy foreign minister . . . would say that they were constructive comments, they added to the discussion," McCormack said.

In the interview, the Syrian deputy foreign minister said that Damascus will not be swayed by pressure from Syrian allies opposed to the peace process, including Iran. "Syria will pursue its own independent policies and national interests," Mekdad said.

The Syrian message was echoed yesterday in the state-controlled media. "It is now vital to act seriously to put peace talks back on track. The alternatives to this are dangerous to the region and the entire world," Teshreen said in an editorial.

Administration officials have been uncertain about how much to woo Damascus, given concerns over its role in Lebanon, its support for extremists and the transit through Syria of foreign fighters and weapons to Iraqi insurgents. Some U.S. officials did not want Syria to receive an invitation to Annapolis, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued that it was important to be able to tell other Arab states that the Syrians had been invited.

Some foreign policy experts close to the administration have also begun to voice concern that the White House's resolve to confront Syria is weakening. "It appears that we are courting them, and the Syrians are continuing this really unproductive role in Lebanon, and the administration is not taking any countermeasures that are apparent," said David Schenker, a former Pentagon Middle East expert now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In an interview with CNN yesterday, Bush said that any negotiations over the Golan Heights are "going to be up to Israel and Syria," and that his focus for now is on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. He concluded three days of intensive Middle East diplomacy by proclaiming the Annapolis conference a "hopeful beginning" to peace negotiations. Appearing yesterday in the Rose Garden flanked by Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the president said he assured both that "the United States will be actively engaged in the process, that we will use our power to help you, as you come up with the necessary decisions to lay out a Palestinian state that will live side by side in peace with Israel."

Russia's proposal to hold a sequel conference and Syria's interest in expanding the new effort may signal some momentum generated in Annapolis, despite deep skepticism even by participants about enduring results.

Russia is seeking to widen the peace process after weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, according to Russian and Arab officials. Its offer to promote a broader agenda was part of what lured Syria to Annapolis, Russian and Syrian officials said. Sergey Yakovlev, Moscow's ambassador at large to the Middle East, has been holding talks with Syria and others in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia backs the idea of beginning Syrian-Israeli peace talks, said a senior Arab envoy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested this week that the next international gathering be held as early as the end of January, while other European and Arab officials said it is more likely to take place in the first three months of 2008.

Lavrov told reporters yesterday that Russia will work to broker peace talks between Israel and all its neighbors.

"This is crucial not only for the solution of all key problems in Palestinian-Israeli relations -- I mean the border issue, refugees and the status of Jerusalem -- but also for approaching other spheres of the Middle East settlement, the Arab-Israeli conflict. I mean the Syrian and Lebanese areas," Lavrov said, according to Russian news reports.

In another follow-up to Tuesday's conference, the Bush administration named retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, to become a special U.S. envoy for Middle East security. Rice said Jones will work with Israelis and Palestinians and help design a new U.S. plan of security assistance for the Palestinian Authority.

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