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World News

Gaza carnage brakes Syria-Israel peace moves

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel’s assault on Gaza has prompted Syria to rule out an early resumption of indirect peace talks, without killing off Syrian interest in an eventual deal.

“Certainly for a period of time it changes the mood, the public rhetoric and the tensions, but in the end it doesn’t change the strategic options of any of the players,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Institute’s Middle East Centre.

Arab and Muslim fury aroused by Israeli air raids on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has made it impossible to pick up the talks, Syria and mediator Turkey say.

“It is not possible to carry on the negotiations under these conditions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said on Monday as the Gaza death toll rose above 300 in three days of bombing.

Israel says it is trying to halt cross-border rocket attacks that intensified after a six-month, Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas expired on December 19. The Islamist group blames the truce’s demise on Israeli attacks and a tight blockade of Gaza.

Without mentioning the already suspended talks, a Syrian official declared on Sunday that Israel’s action in Gaza “closes the door on the movement for a peaceful political settlement.”

Salem said such reactions were predictable, but argued that progress on the Israeli-Syrian track would depend on whether the next Israeli prime minister decides to pursue it and on how seriously U.S. President-elect Barack Obama backs the effort.

Israel holds a parliamentary election on February 10 to find a replacement for its caretaker prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who resigned in September. Obama will be sworn in on January 20.

“I think the Syrians would respond seriously to a serious Israeli approach,” Salem said, adding that he expected an Obama administration to take the Israeli-Syria peace track seriously. “The events in Gaza do not fundamentally impact that logic.”

Syria has held four indirect rounds of talks with Israel in Turkey this year, but these were put on hold after Olmert quit.

While still under U.S. sanctions, Syria has regained some European approval after backing a peace pact for Lebanon and forging diplomatic ties with the neighbour it once dominated.

DUAL POLICY

Yet at the same time, it has kept up its longstanding alliance with Iran and support for Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last week that the Turkish-brokered drive could lead to direct talks and a peace deal if Israel relinquished the Golan Heights, captured in 1967, and the United States came on board as a sponsor.

Washington has remained aloof since U.S.-supervised negotiations between the two countries collapsed in 2000 over the scope of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

“The Syrians have always had the double language and played both games,” said London-based Middle East expert Nadim Shehadi.

Damascus, along with Hezbollah and Hamas, was exploiting the Gaza crisis to accuse its Arab rivals -- especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- of complicity in a perceived drive to subordinate the region to U.S.-Israeli hegemony.

“All the anti-Syrian front is in a corner,” he said, naming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora among Arab leaders embarrassed by Gaza’s torment.

Syria may indeed be using its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas to try to lever Israel to the negotiating table, dangling the prospect that it might loosen those links as part of a deal.

Israelis are sharply split over whether it is worth pursuing peace with Syria, which would involve returning the Golan, annexed by Israel in 1981 in a move rejected internationally.

Advocates of doing a deal with Syria perceive Assad “as a responsible and serious neighbour you can do business with,” columnist Aluf Benn wrote in Israel’s Haaretz daily recently.

Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were among those who “dream of a new Middle East in which Syria disengages from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and links up with Israel and the United States in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and ‘special status’ (renewed control) in Lebanon,” Benn added.

Opponents say Syria has nothing to offer Israel that would justify the military, economic and psychological costs of giving up the Golan plateau, home to 20,000 Israeli settlers.

“A peace treaty with Syria does not improve the strategic situation. Nothing beats the status quo,” wrote Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, in the English-language Jerusalem Post newspaper.

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