Between the signing of the Hebron accord on January 15, 1997, and the various troubles in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began in earnest in March, much Arab-Israeli diplomatic activity focused on restarting the moribund Israeli-Syrian track. Virtually all of the impetus for this activity has originated in Israel and, while there has been scant sign of progress so far, the Netanyahu government still persists with it. In mid-June yet another attempt was made to interest the Syrians in talks through Miguel Angel Moratinos, the European Union’s special Middle East envoy-again to no avail.
Why is the Israeli government interested in such a revival when by any reasonable estimate the prospect for a major agreement with Syria is so slim? Some have argued that Israel wishes to make a deal with President Hafez al-Asad before his deteriorating health becomes a matter of “final status.” Others cite U.S. pressure to move farther and faster with Syria. But the real answer lies in the Israeli government’s preoccupation with the situation in southern Lebanon. That is the only place that has regularly taken a toll of Israeli soldiers’ lives in recent years, and where the Israeli air force and navy too have maintained combat-ready high levels of activity. And it is agreed universally that, because of Syria’s effective suzerainty over Lebanon, Israel’s only path out of that unhappy country runs through Damascus.