Damascus Predicts Harder Line From Israel

But some believe negotiations may resume despite rhetoric.

Damascus Predicts Harder Line From Israel

But some believe negotiations may resume despite rhetoric.

Saturday, 14 February, 2009
Syrian analysts and columnists say the success of right-wing parties in the Israeli general election reduces the chances of a peace deal between the two countries.



It is still unclear who is going to form the new government in Israel, but many observers have predicted that any new team will be influenced by right-wing parties that want tougher policies against Arabs.



The centrist party Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, won more seats than any other group. But right-wing parties like Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the new hawkish party, Yisrael Beitenu led by Avdigor Lieberman, emerged victorious in the February 10 vote.



On February 12, Tishreen, the official Syrian newspaper, said the election spelled an end to any possibility of peace with Israel. The daily said there was no chance of a positive change in Israeli policy, and called on Arab states to collectively withdraw from a peace initiative drawn up in 2002.



Mazen Bilal, editor-in-chief of the pro-government news website, Syria Tomorrow, wrote an article on February 11 describing the election result as “very depressing”, and arguing that peace did not feature high on the agendas of any of the parties fighting the election.



In an editorial in his paper the same day, Assad Abboud, editor-in-chief of the official Al-Thawra newspaper, said, “We adopted a weak and submissive stance in proposing peace, so Israel did not feel compelled to change.”



Two days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu said that he would not give up the strategic Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. Observers said he appeared to be taking a tough line to boost his right-wing credentials in the face of the success of Lieberman’s party.



"The Golan will never be divided again, the Golan will never fall again, the Golan will remain in our hands," he declared during a campaign stop in the area, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war.



Livni, on the other hand, did not rule out returning the region in return for full peace – a precondition set by Damascus.



A Syrian analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said any new government, whether formed by Livni or Netanyahu, would be too paralysed to pursue a peace deal with Damascus.



He predicted that Iran, Syria and Islamist groups allied with them would benefit from the Israeli election, which would provide additional justification for “extremist behaviour” in the region.



When the Israelis launched their military offensive in Gaza in January, Damascus announced an end to indirect peace talks with Israel, which had been conducted through Turkish mediators.



The analyst argued that Damascus was in a fairly strong position not to make concessions, given that the United States administration headed by Barack Obama was unlikely to favour military intervention in the region, and that a hawkish cabinet in Israel provided an excuse for intransigence.



In any case, he said, "it will not be very easy for Syria to break its strong regional ties, particularly with Iran”.



Other observers, however, predicted that the US and European states would press hard for a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement.



A political activist in Damascus, who asked to remain anonymous, said western powers were convinced that supporting a peace deal was the most effective way of disengaging Syria from its current regional alliances.



He added that even if Israeli officials made hawkish statements, that did not mean they lacked political pragmatism.



"Peace talks resumed between Syria and Israel when no one was expect that to happen, and at a time when the US was not directly endorsing them,” he said, adding that with the Obama administration in place, the chances for negotiations to happen were greater than ever.



The head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, is to visit Syria next week as part of a Middle East tour, and is reportedly to discuss the possibilities of reaching a peace deal.



“That doesn’t mean peace talks would be resumed tomorrow,” cautioned the political activist. “I don’t think either Syria or Israel is in hurry.”



He suggested that for both states, it was more important to be seen to be involved in peace talks in order to satisfy the international community than to progress towards a real peace deal, which would require painful concessions on both sides.



(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)
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