Polls put Syrian peace deal at risk

Uncertainty over Israel's leadership raise fears over the Golan Heights dispute while the prospect of US intervention in the region becomes more likely.

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DAMASCUS // As Israel decides on who will lead its next government, Benjamin Netanyahu or Tzipi Livni, Syria is bracing itself for renewed outbreaks of violence in the region, according to political analysts here. The strong showing of the Israeli Right in the elections, which came after Israel's assault on Gaza, has killed off Syrian hopes a peace deal was close at hand, they said. Up until the end of 2008, Damascus and Tel Aviv had been engaged in mediated talks for the first time in years. "The election results do not support a vision of peace, I don't see how there can be progress on that front," Phorshed Dilli, a Syrian commentator, said in an interview. "I think we have reached the point where the region will decide very soon on peace or war.

"I don't think there will be outright fighting between Syria and Israel - neither country wants that - but there will be small conflicts, between Hamas and Israel and Hizbollah and Israel." The Likud party, led by Mr Netanyahu, won 27 of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats, against Ms Livni and the Kadima party's total of 28. Both sides have claimed victory but under Israeli law whomever the president, Shimon Peres, thinks can form a working majority coalition will be tapped to become the next prime minister. Mr Netanyahu has made it clear he has little interest in pursuing a peace process and while Ms Livni has said she would as prime minister, her government would be dependent on right-wing blocs opposed to negotiations. Syria and Israel have been in a state of war for decades over Israel's continued illegal occupation of the Golan Heights. Efforts to resolve the dispute have always faltered, with Israel refusing to hand back all of the territory it seized and insisting that Syria end its support for Hamas, in the Palestinian territories, and Hizbollah in Lebanon. Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 but has a militant wing and is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, Europe and Israel. Israel justified last month's 22-day Gaza offensive as an effort to weaken the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement. More than 1,300 Palestinians died as a result, including hundreds of civilians killed by air strikes and artillery shells. Three Israeli civilians died from Hamas rockets fired into Israel. "The entire Middle East is so inflammable now you never know which spark will start the fire," said Samir Taqi, a Syrian analyst, warning the long-running impasse between Syria and Israel - which he characterised as a state of "no-peace, no-war" - could not continue. "The ability to go on living in this chronic situation is limited," he said. "That's why I think it's more liable to result in a real confrontation." Mr Taqi said Syria felt betrayed over the failed back-channel talks. Mediated by Turkey, they had apparently agreed on basic terms and conditions for peace between Syria and Israel. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, was in Ankara, ostensibly to further the process, just before the war with Gaza started. There are suggestions the Israeli leader even favoured a direct meeting with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president. Syrian and Israeli leaders have never held face-to-face talks. "Gaza has shown that Israel was just playing with peace," Mr Taqi said. "They were just using the negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians as a mask. "At the moment I can say there is a status of complete mistrust and bitterness at the political level in Syria [with Israel]. It is shared by others, but for Syria this is how we think now. There is bitterness about how savage the Israelis were [in Gaza]." Syria has long insisted that US intervention is necessary if there is to be a regional peace. Barack Obama, the US president, has appointed a Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and pledged full US involvement. Mr Taqi said sufficient US engagement would only happen if a right-wing Israeli government went too far in its efforts to suppress Palestinian nationalism. "I doubt the Americans are ready for a major confrontation with the Israelis and that is what it would take," he said. "The Obama administration will not be that heavily involved and that's why I'm afraid that things here could explode and that might force the Americans to intervene more quickly." Despite general outrage and despair in Syria over the Gaza war, and pessimism at the Israeli election results, Mr Dilli said he was optimistic a right-wing Israeli government would not last long. "Now the leftists are weak in Israel and the loudest voices are those of the right and of the fanatics, those who do not want peace. But this cannot last. There will be a coalition or perhaps even early re-elections." psands@thenational.ae