News that Israel has for months been secretly negotiating with Syria has sent a frisson of excitement through the Middle East overshadowing, at least momentarily, the new political deal in Beirut. The standoff between Syria and Israel has historically been much more intractable than that between Lebanon's warring factions, so any exchange between Damascus and Jerusalem that doesn't involve invective or military ordnance deserves to hog the headlines.
No details of the talks, brokered by Turkey, have yet been made public, but it's a fair guess that the negotiators have spent a great deal of time discussing the Golan Heights the rocky escarpment Israel seized from Syria in 1967, the return of which is Syria's precondition for peace with Israel.
Israel's main interest in dialogue with Syria lies in reining in the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hizballah, and also the Palestinian Hamas movement, both implacable enemies of Israel that enjoy extensive Syrian patronage. The Jewish State's other objective: to limit the malign influence of Syria's key ally, Iran.
Although it may be clear enough what the bitter enemies want from each other, it remains hard to see the talks leading to any substantial concessions from either side.
The Israelis aren't negotiating from a position of strength. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is deeply unpopular, buffeted by scandals and just barely clinging to power. This leaves him in no position to make important concessions to Syria's Bashar Assad. Nor does it help that the majority of Israelis oppose returning the Golan Heights, and few regard Assad as trustworthy.
Another hindrance to any Olmert-Assad accord is the Bush Administration's almost visceral hostility toward Syria, which it regards as an auxiliary of the Axis of Evil. President Bush has made no secret of the fact that he regards Assad as a running dog for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and just weeks ago, the Administration was trying to persuade the world that Syria was trying to acquire nuclear technology. Unless Washington signs off on it, no accord between Damascus and Jerusalem is worth the paper on which it is written.
That doesn't mean the talks in Turkey are a waste of time. Their most realistic positive outcome, though, will be to lay some of the groundwork for further discussions, under a new Israeli Prime Minister and American President. It won't be a long wait.