Monday, 13 October 2003

Israeli airstrike puts secret deal in jeopardy

Israel’s military attack on Syrian soil is threatening to derail secret European and U.N. diplomatic efforts to bring the two Mideast enemies back to the negotiating table and could stall a planned Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap, the Associated Press has learned from officials involved.

The exploratory diplomatic efforts, which until now have been kept quiet, are the results of a yearlong negotiation for the prisoner swap and an offer this summer from Syrian President Bashar Assad to restart peace talks with Israel that fell apart in March 2000, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

The United States, while not taking part in bringing the parties together, could offer incentives to Jerusalem and Damascus, such as security guarantees and the possibility Syria could be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, the diplomats said.

Israel has been willing to listen to ideas but has made no commitment to renewing a dialogue with Syria, diplomats said. If the sides do agree to some kind of contact, U.S. involvement could increase, a move which could help the Bush administration’s goal of bringing peace to the Middle East.

Last week’s Israeli bombing of a purported Palestinian militant camp in Syria has hurt both the diplomatic efforts and the prisoner swap, U.N.

diplomats said. European diplomats had been hopeful the exchange would go through in the coming days but that assessment changed after U.N. envoy Terje Larsen visited Damascus and met with Syria’s foreign minister on Thursday.

For Syria, allowing Hezbollah to go through with a prisoner deal now — even a lopsided one in which Israel would give up hundreds of prisoners, including Palestinians, in exchange for a former Israeli colonel and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers — could be seen by its neighbors as a sign of weakness. Israel also would free two Lebanese guerrilla leaders it kidnapped during the 1990s, diplomats said. The Israeli soldiers were abducted in October 2000.

Diplomats had hoped the swap would generate good will that could be exploited and turned into an Israeli-Syrian peace initiative. Now, the diplomats say their efforts are centered on de-escalating tensions caused by the Israeli airstrike.

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