Israeli report urges peace progress with Syria 

By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) — Israel should pursue peace talks with Syria next year to help contain threats from Iran's nuclear program and Palestinian Hamas, an internal Israeli government report says.
Compiled by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's National Security Council (NSC) and published in part by an Israeli newspaper on Sunday, the report argues for «paying the heavy price» of an accord with Syria — the return of the occupied Golan Heights.
A senior Israeli official involved in preparing the report said U. S. President-elect Barack Obama should be asked to sponsor the negotiations with Syria, which were revived this year but have been conducted indirectly through Turkey.
"The most important actor for Israeli-Syrian peace talks speaks English, and his name is Obama. Without very positive and significant U. S. involvement, the Syrian track, like the Palestinian track, will go nowhere, " the official told Reuters.
"We favor speeding up the talks with Syria, in hope of a breakthrough, " the official said, adding that the Golan «is not too high a price to pay» if Syria cuts off Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas and «scales back» its ties with Iran.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejects such preconditions. But some foreign powers brokering his rapprochement with Israel have predicted Syria will be more pliable if an accord is at hand. Assad has also called for a U. S. role in the negotiations.
U. S. President George W. Bush has largely shunned Assad over Syria's alleged meddling in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Obama has backed dialogue with Syria, saying this could help stabilize the region and better secure Israel as it tries to cobble together deal on Palestinian statehood.
The Israeli NSC report comes in the flux ahead of a February 10 election in which surveys predict a narrow win for right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Olmert's heir-apparent, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Neither candidate has voiced much appetite for the revival of talks with Syria, which broke down in 2000 over how much of the Golan — captured by Israel in 1967 — should be returned.
But with Israel now keen to see Iran isolated over its nuclear program and fearing new border wars in Lebanon with Hezbollah or in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Olmert's successor may be forced to accept the NSC's recommendations on Syria.
"I don't think either (Netanyahu or Livni) would stop this track. It's too important, " said the senior Israeli official.
A five-month-old Gaza truce has been unraveling and Palestinians may be on course for fresh civil strife over Islamist Hamas's demand that rival President Mahmoud Abbas, of the secular Fatah faction, submit to a new election in January.
Hamas crushed Fatah in a 2006 parliamentary ballot but has been sidelined for refusing to accept peacemaking with Israel.
The NSC report, as cited by Haaretz newspaper, warns that Abbas could «vanish» and urges Israel to «prevent an election in the Palestinian Authority, even at the cost of a confrontation with the United States and the international community.» Continued…
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