How Israel-Syria Talks Could Affect Iran Ties

For weeks, the Middle East has been buzzing with talk that Turkey has been mediating secret peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. On Wednesday, the speculation ended: both governments confirmed the reports, issuing statements just minutes apart. The dialogue, according to the Israeli version, is intended to be "serious and continuous" and would aim for a "comprehensive peace in accordance with the Madrid Conference terms of reference." The brief mention of the Madrid Conference, Israeli-Arab negotiations that were cosponsored by Washington and Moscow in 1991, is particularly important because it may signal renewed U.S. involvement, according to former Israeli foreign ministry official Alon Liel, who spent nearly two years between 2004 and 2006 in secret talks with a Syrian mediator. Shortly after the announcement, Liel spoke with NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino. Excerpts:

NEWSEEK: Is this the real thing?
Alon Liel: I think it's a breakthrough.

Do you think this was done with an American blessing?
I think it was coordinated with the Americans. The fact that the three leaders agreed on the Madrid framework means that the Americans will be a part of it. Not only would the Americans be involved, but the Palestinians. The leaders see the talks as including the Syrians and the Palestinians, which is very, very meaningful.

Why do you think the Madrid language is so important--because the talks would be multilateral instead of bilateral?

Didn't [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice say recently that she supports indirect talks between Syria and Israel?
The Americans have always said that they have nothing against [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert talking to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad--but that they wouldn't participate. It was hypocritical because they knew that if they didn't enter the talks, nothing would change. I see, from today, the Americans as a player. I think this is probably related to a change in the American position.

What do you see as the most problematic potential sticking point in the upcoming negotiations?
I think the most complicated area will be the relationship between Syria and Iran. I see a big battle here. Syria will want to maintain contact with Iran. Once you have such a statement, imagine the feeling of Iran. It's not only Olmert taking a risk, it's also Assad taking a very big risk. Both leaders are doing something very courageous. Also, Syria will have to bring about a change of behavior regarding Hamas.

Is it realistic to expect Syria would completely sever ties with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas as part of a deal?
I'm not sure Syria and Iran can be strategic allies [after a peace deal]. A comprehensive peace agreement will necessitate meaningful changes. I don't think Syria can have peace and normal relations with both Israel and Hizbullah, or Israel and Hamas. It's almost mutually exclusive.

Could you see a day when Hizbullah is carrying out military operations against Syria as a result?
I really don't know how Hizbullah will act. I don't think they'd want to destroy--in a stupid way, from their perspective--this ongoing contact they have [with Damascus]. I don't know about the Iranian reaction. Nobody should start speculating.

Less than a year ago Israel bombed Syria, and many believe the Mossad was behind the assassination of Hizbullah leader Imad Mugniyeh in Damascus earlier this year. What do you make of the timing?
[The talks] wouldn't happen if it weren't in the strategic interests of both countries. It's in the very basic interest of Syria to preserve ties with the West. For Israel, peace is a must. These are things that are far beyond the military developments. From day one it was clear that it will happen because it's a vital interest of both sides.

Do you think a deal is possible before Bush leaves office?
He might get an agreement before the end of his term. But it doesn't really matter whether it's December 2008 or February 2009.

Olmert is unpopular and in the midst of what appears to be a serious police investigation. Is he really politically strong enough to make peace right now?
I don't know. Maybe Olmert won't be the one to finalize it. But it's not Olmert personally--it's the state of Israel. It's an official move, nothing personal. Olmert is not alone.

How do we know this announcement isn't just timed to deflect attention from Olmert's scandals?
It's not spin. It's a real thing. It might be helpful to Olmert politically. But I don't care who brings the peace--I'll welcome it. When you see a statement published simultaneously in Damascus, Ankara and Jerusalem--it's short, but extremely meaningful. It's done in good faith. It's a real thing, and I'm really happy. For me, it's a huge day.