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Israel’s peace efforts widen

Times Staff Writer

The tentative truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is just part of a larger effort by the Jewish state to reach out to longtime adversaries. In the process, it confronts a number of difficult, domestically unpopular negotiating options.

One key issue faced by Israeli diplomats is both straightforward and highly sensitive. Syria wants the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, returned in exchange for peace.

Analysts believe that giving up the Golan Heights, regarded by Israelis as a beloved vacation spot and a crucial strategic asset, could fundamentally alter the regional equation.

The change, they say, could result in less Iranian influence over Syria; less animosity between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which receives support from Syria and Iran; and a stronger peace agreement with Hamas, whose senior leadership mostly lives in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

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“It’s a move to break the Damascus-Tehran-Hezbollah front, and Syria is the weakest part of that chain,” said Anat Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.

Israeli diplomats also continue to conduct direct talks with the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, though little progress has been seen in recent months toward an independent Palestinian state. Indirect peace talks with Syria exist under Turkish mediation, and talks with Hezbollah over a prisoner exchange appear to be making headway. On Wednesday, Israel publicly offered direct negotiations with the new Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah is a crucial player.

The flurry of Israeli diplomatic activity comes amid domestic turmoil for beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and as U.S. influence in the region is waning in the final months of the Bush administration.

Some of the recent initiatives, particularly the Hamas truce, which took effect Thursday, and the Syrian talks, are departures from the once-unified Israeli-U.S. strategy of confronting regional adversaries with diplomatic isolation and the threat of force. The shift toward negotiations may indicate an Israeli conclusion that the hard-line approach had not produced results.

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A senior official said the various tracks of diplomatic talks weren’t part of an overall umbrella strategy of multilateral engagement. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks were based on case-by-case developments that favored diplomacy.

U.S. officials have been openly supportive of the Gaza truce and more circumspect regarding the Israeli-Syrian talks. But both represent an Israeli break from Bush administration doctrine.

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. was “supportive of the efforts that Israel is making to reach out and engage in discussions.”

In Gaza, more than a year of virtual siege failed to dislodge Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and later routed the rival Fatah faction to take full control of the impoverished coastal sliver.

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Olmert faced growing public clamor to end the near-daily rocket attacks by Gazan militant groups on southern Israeli communities, but a large-scale reoccupation of the densely packed strip could have proved complicated and bloody.

Observers said Olmert also needed some good news to deflect from his list of domestic woes: a corruption investigation and mounting signs of rebellion in his ruling coalition.

If it holds, the cease-fire will open the door to more intensive negotiations involving the possible release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the opening of Gaza’s border with Egypt. The pace of future steps probably will be on the agenda next week when Olmert travels to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With Syria, Israeli officials concluded that diplomatic isolation failed to reduce Damascus’ support for Hezbollah, blunt its alleged nuclear ambitions or influence its close relationship with Iran, analysts and observers said.

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“There is a growing realization that waiting until Syria has a change of heart and gives up everything is fruitless,” Kurz said.

Turkey, which has close relations with Israel and Syria, has played mediator so far. But the process could soon proceed with face-to-face talks. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said this week that he hoped to bring Olmert together with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Paris during a summit in July.

Israeli officials have indicated that the Golan is on the table for discussion, but such negotiations could be highly unpopular for the Olmert government.

This week’s offer to directly negotiate with Lebanon over the disputed territory known as Shabaa Farms was quickly dismissed by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and criticized by some Israeli analysts as a domestically motivated smoke screen.

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“It was a kind of Olmert gimmick,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat and founder of the Israeli-Syrian Peace Society. “Israelis believe some of it is Olmert spin to shift attention away” from his domestic troubles.

Despite Syria’s removal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the country maintains a strong hold on Lebanese politics and any negotiation Israel might entertain with Beirut would have to start with Damascus, Liel said.

The talks with Hezbollah center on the return of two Israeli soldiers captured in 2006 in exchange for a still-undetermined number of Lebanese prisoners held by the Israelis. According to Israeli radio reports, the families of the two soldiers were briefed by Israeli officials about the state of the talks this week and believe that a deal is imminent.

Somewhat overshadowed in the recent diplomatic activity are Olmert’s long-term talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose shaky and unpopular government has little to show for its negotiations with Israel.

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Casey, the State Department spokesman, expressed concern that Israel was seeking to obscure failure of the Palestinian negotiations with success elsewhere.

“We don’t think that any other track or any other negotiating path ought to be a substitute or a distraction from the primary set of discussions and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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