Syrian-Israeli Negotiations Olmert's Deft Golan Deal

Eight years after the failure of the last round of negotiations, Israel and Syria are again seeking a peace settlement. With the possible return of the Golan Heights, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is presenting himself as an apostle of peace. But leading politicians claim he's just trying to divert attention from his corruption scandal.


Olmert lacks public and political support for his plan to return the Golan Heights to Syria.
REUTERS

Olmert lacks public and political support for his plan to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

The announcement from the office of the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem was short, dry and dramatic. Peace negotiations are underway between Israel and Syria, with Turkey serving as the intermediary. In making the announcement, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed for the first time what Syrian President Bashar Assad had already disclosed a month ago. At the time, Olmert had remained silent, only indirectly confirming Assad's statement.

But now Olmert has changed his mind and is taking a proactive approach. In doing so, he ensured that the news that "Syria and Israel are negotiating again" appeared on every screen. Leading up to the announcement, Olmert had done his utmost to see to it that Syria and Turkey would confirm the existence of peace talks almost simultaneously with Israel.

However, Olmert has nothing new to report, be it on the status and timeframe of the talks or on hopes or disappointments. There was also no concrete reason to pick Wednesday as the day to notify the press about the talks with Damascus. There had been no dramatic changes, nor was there a tactical reason -- such as to apply pressure to Syria -- to divulge the secret talks to the public at this point. One of the stages in the negotiations had come to an end, nothing more and nothing less.

Olmert's Party already Discussing a Successor

But no one in Jerusalem was overly surprised at Olmert's sudden urge to divulge the news. To Israelis, it was clear that their prime minister hoped to use the news about the peace talks to divert attention away from his many personal problems. A gag order in the most recent corruption scandal, which is currently being investigated by police, was set to expire on Wednesday evening. After that, the media would be free to report in detail on the funds Olmert had supposedly received for several years, money delivered to him in envelopes to make it more difficult to trace. Before that, journalists had to limit their stories on the scandal to more general accounts. The drama will intensify even further on Friday morning, when police investigators are set to question Olmert again and confront him with their suspicions.

Life is becoming more difficult for Olmert. The Syrian-Israeli talks can only become serious if he manages to shed the suspicions of corruption that currently weigh heavily on him.

A prime minister who faces criminal charges would no longer be acceptable. Members of Olmert's Kadima Party are already discussing -- openly, no less -- the question of a successor, especially with Olmert under police investigation in other scandals, as well.

This explains Olmert's decision to take the offensive and portray himself to voters as an apostle of peace. The cameras, Olmert hopes, would then highlight him as a statesman and not as much as a politician plagued by scandal.

In doing so, Olmert is taking a page from his predecessor Ariel Sharon's book. Sharon, who also faced investigations into possible corruption, used Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to divert public attention from his own problems.

But Olmert will be unable to repeat Sharon's PR maneuver. Sharon could depend on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip being popular among the Israeli public. Neither the settlers nor the coastal strip enjoyed any significant level of support within the population. Even the fact that Sharon used the army to help forcibly evict some of the 8,000 settlers did nothing to diminish his popularity.

But the majority of Israelis will not readily part with the Golan Heights, which Olmert has apparently already suggested he would consider returning to the Syrians. They value the highland region as a vacation spot, and younger voters are hardly likely to even remember that the Golan belonged to Syria until 1967. They consider it part of Israel's core territory, while older Israelis see it as essential to their country's security.

Can Olmert Still Be Trusted to Conduct Foreign Policy?

However, the unpopular Olmert will hardly succeed in convincing a majority of the potential advantages giving up the Golan could have for Israel. After Olmert's media offensive, journalists and politicians were quick to voice their suspicions that the prime minister was using concessions on the Golan Heights to save his skin. In their view, a man who is fighting for his domestic political survival cannot be trusted to conduct the country's foreign policy.

The cards are stacked against Olmert. He currently lacks majority support in his party or in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for his plan to give up the Golan Heights. Key ministers have already criticized Olmert for his promises to Assad. If Olmert were serious about withdrawing from Golan, his coalition would fall apart. It would be a mistake to allow the "Axis of Evil" to gain ground on Israel's northern front, said Eli Yishai, the deputy prime minister and head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Yishai called the talks with Syria "fruitless."

The road to harmonious coexistence between Syria and Israel remains long -- so long, in fact, that Israeli and Syrian negotiators still refuse to sit directly facing each other. They are staying in separate hotels in Ankara, while their Turkish hosts shuttle back and forth between the two delegations with interim results. But even this is progress. In the past, Israelis and Syrians were not even willing to meet in the same city.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the Swiss newsweekly Weltwoche

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