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Published: Tuesday, 2/6/2007

Help the deal along

THE good news is that Israel and Syria may be approaching a resolution of the principal problem blocking better relations between them, the future of the Golan Heights. The exasperating news is that the United States appears to be opposing negotiations between the two Middle Eastern states on the basis of U.S. antipathy in general to dialogue with Syria, based on its assessment that Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and therefore not fit to talk to.

The main bone of contention between Syria and Israel is the Golan Heights, seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war. At times in the past, Syrian governments have taken the position that prior Israeli agreement to the unconditional return of the Golan was a pre-condition to commencing talks.

If current reports, including in the Israeli press, are correct, it now appears that private talks have been under way between the two governments for some time and that a workable compromise has been agreed upon.

The problem now, according to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is under attack by the Israeli right, is that the United States is opposed to such an agreement between Israel and Syria, disregarding what Israel would gain and focusing instead on what Syria would gain.

The bones the U.S. is picking with Syria, apart from the charge of support of terrorism, include: Syrian interference in and support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, its help to Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Syria's sometime alliance with Iran, insufficient (in Washington's view) Syrian cooperation and help in Iraq, and a U.S. itch to effect regime change in Damascus and displace Syria's president, Bashar al-Asad.

The problem with the Bush Administration's argument is twofold. The primary weakness is that all of those elements are also obvious to Israel, and if Israel chooses to proceed to an agreement with Syria anyway, that means it has taken them into account before making its decision.

The second problem is that an Israeli-Syrian agreement would actually open the door for the United States to address all of those issues with Syria itself, with positive changes becoming real possibilities.

Taking Syria out of the column of obdurate, die-hard opponents of Israel in the Middle East is a worthy goal.

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