The Israeli and Syrian leadership could meet face-to-face next month for the first time in their history, Israeli officials said today.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, are scheduled to attend a July 13 summit of European and Mediterranean countries in Paris.
“The possibility of bringing the two leaders together while they cross paths in Paris was raised by the Israelis. It is currently a tentative offer… it depends on what happens between now and Paris,” said one Israeli official involved in the current indirect talks between Syrian and Israeli envoys in Ankara, Turkey.
The likelihood of a meeting was downplayed by several Syrian and Israeli officials, who said the act was premature.
Mr Assad is said to be reluctant to meet with the Israeli leader without first obtaining concessions regarding Syria’s territorial claim to the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel, meanwhile, wants Syria to distance itself from Iran, and sever ties with other Islamic groups, including Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Moshe Maoz, a Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that Syria’s diplomatic position was too delicate to risk meeting with the Israelis at present time.
“Mr Assad would risk losing his prestige and popularity in the Middle East, and beyond. He doesn’t need to meet Mr Olmert in person, the current indirect talks in Turkey are enough of a gesture to the rest of the world.”
Syria has been largely shunned by the western world since it was implicated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in 2005. Mr Hariri was highly regarded among international leaders, and was a close personal friend of former French President Jacques Chirac, who repeatedly called for the isolation of Syria.
The current invitation extended by Nicolas Sarkozy marks a significant thaw in the relationship between the two countries, which Mr Assad hopes to extend to the rest of the Western world.
“The image of Syria - ready and willing to negotiate for peace - is helping ease their transition back into diplomatic circles. Israel should take care, however, not to be a pawn in Syria’s chess board,” said one Israeli politician.
The talk of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal is also advantageous to Mr Olmert, who is facing serious domestic challenges to his leadership in the wake of multiple corruption investigations.
Mr Olmert is currently engaged in a number of diplomatic initiatives, which critics say are aimed to detract attention for the growing calls for his resignation.
In Cairo today, a Hamas delegation met with Egyptian mediators to discuss a ceasefire proposal with Israel. Following the meeting, senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that a successful end was in sight:
"The talks under way in Egypt on calm are nearing an end, an end that would bring about what the Palestinian people aspire to - a lifting of the siege, the opening of the crossings and an end to the aggression.”
"We are committed to these demands ... A reciprocal and simultaneous calm that begins in Gaza and then extends to the West Bank," Mr Haniyeh said.
A few hours later, Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip a year ago from the rival Fatah movement, said it fired a rocket into the Israeli city of Ashkelon, slightly wounding one Israeli.
Such actions jeopardise the ceasefire talks, said Israeli officials, who insist that Gaza militants completely halt attacks on Israel before the ceasefire is extended to the West Bank.
Meanwhile, a German-mediated prisoner swap between Lebanon and Israel was “on the verge” of coming together yesterday, said Zvi Regev, father of a one of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hizbullah in 2006.
Israel would release hailed Lebanese fighters in exchange for the two soldiers, whose abduction spurred a 34-day war between the two countries.