Seymour Hersh: Obama helped end Israel's Gaza offensive
Muriel Kane
Published: Sunday March 29, 2009

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The prospects for a long-delayed peace agreement between Israel and Syria are now better than ever, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Writing in the current issue of the New Yorker, Hersh asserts that, despite Syria's anger over Israel's recent Gaza incursion, "renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights are now highly likely."

"Those talks would depend largely on America’s willingness to act as the mediator," Hersh emphasizes, "a role that could offer Barack Obama his first -- and perhaps best -- chance for engagement in the Middle East peace process."

Obama has shown numerous signs of being eager to change the equation in the Middle East. Even before his inauguration, Hersh notes,"the Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops."

When former Vice President Dick Cheney learned that Obama had been putting pressure on the Israelis, he angrily disparaged him as "pro-Palestinian" and described him as someone who would "never make it in the major leagues."

"The differences between Obama’s Syria policies and those of the Administration of George W. Bush have attracted relatively little attention," Hersh writes, recalling Bush's long list of preconditions for any improvement in US-Syrian relations and mockery of Syrian President Bashar Assad for believing that he holds the key to peace in the region.

According to Hersh's sources, Syria is eager for peace with Israel and is backed in this by "Arab leaders who are invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process." In addition, the failure of Israel's campaign in Gaza to dislodge the Hamas government has given Assad room to negotiate without seeming to be appeasing Israel.

Assad himself emailed Hersh last winter to say, "We still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace" and to note that he believes a personal meeting with President Obama would be essential. Obama, for his part, has expressed a willingness to meet with Assad without preconditions.

Many Americans and Israelis now see a potential Syrian-Israeli peace agreement as an effective way of breaking up the "Iranian-Syrian axis" and either isolating Iran or forcing it to join in regional talks. Assad, on the other hand, appears to be aiming to convince America to engage on a more friendly basis with the Shiite states in the region, rather than aligning exclusively with the Sunni regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

There is widespread resistance within Israel to returning the Golan Heights to Syria, which would be a central issue in any negotiations. However, says Hersh, even hardline Israelis may find the prospect of negotiating with Syria -- if only in secret -- far more appealing than dealing with the Palestinians.

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