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.

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