Israel and Syria acknowledge talks

It’s not news that Israel and Syria have been conducting indirect talks for some time through the government of Turkey, although it was never officially confirmed.

But the news that Jerusalem and Damascus have issued identical statements acknowledging the talks is surely significant.

“The two sides stated their intention to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind,” according to the statement. “They decided to pursue the dialogue between them in a serious and continuous way, in order to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace.”

If successful, the talks could lead to a broader shift in regional dynamics by returning the Golan Heights to Syria, cutting off critical support for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and diminishing the influence of Iran in the region.

Is it reasonable to think that there already exists at least the outline of an agreement in which Israel returns all (or virtually all) of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty, diplomatic relations and an end to Syria’s support for Hezbollah?

Of course we’ve been here before. In 2000, an effort by Bill Clinton to broker an agreement failed when Israel insisted on keeping a small strip of the Golan bordering the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) and Syria refused. It’s unclear if there is any more flexibility this time around.

But it is possible to wonder how the likes of Khaled Mashaal (Damascus-based Hamas), Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah) and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (Islamic Republic of Iran) are reacting to this latest news. Not to mention George Galloway– is the last castle of Arab dignity about to topple?

Of course Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and its human rights abuses, are no less detestable than they were before– nor will they be if an agreement is reached. It is at least possible to hope that a peace treaty would mean some peaceful exchanges between ordinary Israelis and Syrians. It is of course entirely likely that what would emerge is the sort of “cold peace” currently existing between Israel and Egypt. But I– and I suspect most Israelis– will take a cold peace over no peace at all.