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Golan Heights is key and tenuous issue in Middle East peace pact

With a new truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state still is reaching out to long-time adversaries and grappling with a number of difficult, domestically unpopular negotiations.

One key issue faced by Israeli diplomats is both straightforward and highly sensitive. Syria wants the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, returned in exchange for peace.

Analysts believe that giving up the Golan, regarded by Israelis as a beloved vacation spot and a crucial strategic asset, could fundamentally alter the regional equation.

The change, they say, could result in less Iranian influence over Syria, less animosity between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which receives support from Syria and Iran, and a stronger peace agreement with Hamas, whose senior leadership mostly lives in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

“It's a move to break the Damascus-Tehran-Hezbollah front, and Syria is the weakest part of that chain,” said Anat Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.

Israeli diplomats also continue to conduct direct talks with the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank while Hamas rules Gaza.

The flurry of Israeli diplomatic activity comes amid domestic turmoil for embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and as U.S. influence in the region is waning in the final months of the Bush administration.

Some of the recent initiatives, particularly the Hamas truce, which took effect Thursday, and the Syria talks, are departures from the once-unified Israeli-U.S. strategy to confront regional adversaries with diplomatic isolation and the threat of force. The shift toward negotiations in both cases might indicate an Israeli conclusion that the previous hard-line approach had not produced results.

U.S. officials have been supportive of the Gaza truce and more circumspect regarding Israel-Syria talks. But both represent an Israeli break from Bush administration doctrine.

On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. was “supportive of the efforts that Israel is making to reach out and engage in discussions.”

With Syria, Israeli officials concluded that diplomatic isolation failed to reduce Syria's support for Hezbollah, blunt its alleged nuclear ambitions or influence its close relationship with Iran, analysts and observers said.

“There is a growing realization that waiting until Syria has a change of heart and gives up everything is fruitless,” Kurz said.

The process could soon proceed with face-to-face talks. French President Nicholas Sakorzy said this week he hopes to bring Olmert together with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Paris during a summit in July.

Israeli officials have indicated that Golan is on the table for discussion, but such negotiations could be highly unpopular for the Olmert government.

Somewhat overshadowed in the recent diplomatic activity are Olmert's long-term talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose unpopular government has little to show for its commitment to negotiations with Israel.

Casey, the state department spokesman, expressed concern that Israel was seeking to obscure failure on the Palestinian negotiations.

“We don't think that any other track or any other negotiating path ought to be a substitute or a distraction from the primary set of discussions and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

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