A Damascus detente could cut through the cloud of cynicism. But it all depends on a change at the White House
By Jonathan Freedland
"......Finally, there might be a way to rescue the two-state solution that does not involve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so much as swerve around it. It's been tried at least three times before and come tantalisingly close. The plan: to make peace with Syria first.
The rewards for Israel would be obvious. Instantly, it would have what its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, dreamed of: peace accords with all its immediate neighbours, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and therefore Lebanon. Moreover, the potential spoilers to any two-state solution - Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria itself - would no longer be a threat. "Syria is a lung through which Hizbullah breathes", says Palestinian negotiator and analyst Hussein Agha: if Syria reconciled with Israel, the organisation would have to end its confrontation with Israel. Hamas would be in the same position. Even Iran would have to alter its behaviour. The problem of the two-state notion was never its content, says Agha, only its context - and this would be the right context.
Suddenly Israel would feel much safer in coming to an accord with the Palestinians, even a united Palestinian entity that included Hamas. The two-state solution would look less like an impossible dream and more like an item of unfinished business.
Is it possible? Syria, conscious of the expectations of Arab solidarity, would be unlikely to make a separate deal with Israel at the apparent expense of the Palestinians: there would have to be some careful sequencing to show progress on both tracks. But the good news is that a rapprochement with Syria is discussed at the highest levels in Israel, even forming part of an intelligence briefing for the prime minister this very week. The bad news is that Israel insists it has not yet had sufficient evidence that Damascus is ready to do what it takes to make peace. It also has to be seriously doubted that Olmert is strong enough to play his part - and give up the Golan Heights conquered in 1967.
There is one last obstacle in the way of a Syrian-Israel peace. Those in the know say flatly that the Bush administration will not allow Jerusalem to talk to Damascus, which it deems an associate member of the "axis of evil". Put it down as one more reason why the world waits, ever more impatiently, for January 20 2009 - the day George W Bush will at last be gone. "