Israeli headlines have been dominated in recent days by warnings of a possible summer war with Syria, an alarming prospect for a public still coming to terms with the consequences of last year’s conflict in Lebanon.
But the talk of war might turn out to be cover for a renewal of peace negotiations, abandoned in 2000, that might lead to an eventual return of Syrian sovereignty in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, and Ariel Sharon, his predecessor, rebuffed peace feelers from Damascus before the Lebanon war. Officials explained Israel’s reluctance to re-engage as a consequence of Washington’s resistance to rewarding Syria, a state it associates with terrorism.
This week, Mr Olmert, convening his security cabinet amid military preparations to counter a possible Syrian threat, assured the public, and indirectly Damascus, that “Israel does not want war with Syria”.
In comments that appeared to be directed at politicians and military chiefs who had been talking up the prospects of a summer war, he said: “We must avoid miscalculations that are liable to lead to a security deterioration.”
The tensions were sparked by Israeli military manoeuvres and reports that Syria was strengthening its border and upgrading its arsenal.
The Israeli military had to be prepared on all fronts, said Amir Peretz, defence minister. But “we have to relay to the Syrians that our exercises and preparations . . . in no way reflect Israeli plans to attack Syria.”
Israel has a strategic interest in a settlement with Syria that would curb its support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and wean it from its close ties with Iran. However, it rejects talks based in advance on the proposition that the Golan would be returned to Syrian control.
But some believe that Mr Olmert is preparing public opinion for just such a transfer. “Until last summer’s war, Syria was barely mentioned,” Alon Liel, an Israeli representative at secret talks with Syrian counterparts between 2004-2006, told the Financial Times. “In recent years, Syria’s international isolation led to the illusion that the Golan would remain in Israeli hands forever. Now there is a massive effort to prepare the public for negotiations with Syria.”
There are also indications that the US might be softening its resistance to direct Syrian-Israeli talks, although Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, says she still favours dealing first with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An Israeli delegation is in Washington this week for a regular strategic dialogue with the US to discuss Iran, but also Syria. Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, told reporters: “We’re not going to dictate to the Israeli government what pathways they take in their foreign policy.”
But he said: “Of course we’re going to point out to them the fact that the Syrian government hasn’t really demonstrated through its actions any sort of intent to actually play a constructive role in the region.”
Nevertheless, Ms Rice met Walid Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, in Egypt last month in what was seen as a diplomatic turning point.
Mr Liel said: “If Ms Rice wants to bring the foreign ministers of Syria and Israel together, either in secret or in public, I’m sure she could do it. But I’m not sure she wants to do it.”
With the peace scenario frozen on how to initiate bilateral talks, it is too early to assess a future Syrian-Israeli agreement.