The Syrian peace track

November 27, 2007

Getting representatives from at least a dozen Arab countries to Annapolis today for President Bush's Middle East summit was no small feat considering America's reputation in the region and the unlikely prospect of substantive change in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could advance the peace agenda - and her diplomatic credentials - if she secures Syria's involvement in the process beyond the one-day meeting.

Ms. Rice, who has taken on the peace process as her personal project, has an opportunity to reverse the Bush administration's isolation of Syria. Despite the hard line preferred by some in the White House, the policy must change if Ms. Rice and her boss, President Bush, want negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to resume and succeed. Syria's cooperation is critical to defanging the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has opposed the Annapolis meeting and tried to undermine the authority of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Members of Hamas who dominated the last free and fair elections among Palestinians have controlled the Gaza Strip since they broke with Mr. Abbas' Fatah faction and the coalition government dissolved in June. More than half of the Palestinians whom Mr. Abbas claims to represent live in the Gaza Strip under Hamas rule.

Unlike past attempts at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any new talks must account for Hamas' control over Palestinians in Gaza and contend with it. Syria, which has increasingly aligned itself with Iran, matters because it has allowed the political leadership of Hamas to operate in Damascus, a situation that it could change.

Despite the White House's antipathy toward Damascus, the Syrians agreed to attend the Annapolis summit to press their case for return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war, and they have been assured that they can raise the subject. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he is willing to meet with Syria under certain conditions, but the U.S. in the past has discouraged him.

Fostering a Syrian-Israeli dialogue also could draw Damascus away from Iran, whose menacing desire for nuclear technology and sway with Iraqi Shiite militias make it a continuing source of concern for Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab leaders in the region.

Ms. Rice will have her hands full managing the personalities and political agendas in Annapolis today while pushing summit participants to support renewed negotiations that will lead to a secure Israel and an independent Palestine. But she also must be prepared to include Syria in the mix if that modest goal is reached.

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