Exclusive: Olmert, Assad stage peace stunt to stave of political woes

The onset of indirect Israel-Syrian peace talks in Istanbul with Turkish mediation was announced simultaneously Wednesday, May 21, in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara.
debkafile‘s Middle East and Washington sources report fury in Washington with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is accused of keeping President George W. Bush in the dark on the moves he has set in train with Syrian president Bashar Assad.
The heads of Golan communities issued a statement Wednesday night accusing PM Olmert of acting against the national interest and will and placing Israel in danger. They said he is unfit to continue in office.
Both the Israeli and Syrian leaders are reported to have pounced on this step at very short notice to offset their gathering woes.
Olmert is beset by suspicions of taking bribes, fraud and money laundering which are building up against him as the police bring new disclosures to light. For both these reasons, his coming trip to Washington in two weeks time is very much up in the air.
Assad, for his part, sought to cover his mortification over being shut out of the Lebanese inter-factional accord in Doha Wednesday morning. Our Middle East sources reveal that Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah preferred to sign off on an intra-Lebanese factional deal that gives him veto power in the new government in Beirut, instead of following directives from Damascus and Tehran to carry on fighting the pro-Western majority factions. He has thus emerged as Lebanon’s strongman.
To punish him for his show of independence, the Syrian president trumpeted his resort to peace talks with Israel. The message to Nasrallah was plain: If the talks go well, Hizballah’s legitimacy as a “resistance” force against Israel will be nullified and the group can be disarmed.
While Olmert is accused by most political groupings at home of drumming up the peace initiative to dig himself out of a hole, the steps he has embarked on may be genuine. Indirect talks did apparently take place at the Conrad hotel in Istanbul this week with Turkish diplomats shuttling between the delegations in separate rooms. The Syrian foreign minister Walid Mualem claimed that the Israeli prime minister had agreed to cede the entire Golan and pull back to the pre-1967 war lines.
For this concession – a law was enacted by the Knesset to extend Israel law to the Golan (virtual annexation) in the 1980s – Olmert has never consulted parliament or even his own government. In normal times, he would have to fight for a majority to endorse this step. But now, most political spokesmen assert that, under a heavy cloud of suspicion, he is personally incompetent to negotiate important commitments in Israel’s name, let alone a peace treaty.
Olmert told a kibbutz gathering Wednesday night that it is his duty to take full advantage of the chance of peace with Syria. He expects it won’t be easy and painful concessions will be required to achieve results, but he was sure the chances were greater than the risks.
The race is therefore on between Israel’s state prosecutor – for an indictment that will force Olmert’s resignation as prime minister; and a peace accord at the end of the diplomatic track, which he and Assad have set on motion with Turkey’s aid. Most political circles are betting on the prosecution as the winner.

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