Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Olmert's peace offensive

May 22, 2008 |  8:40 am

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is waging a peace offensive as he battles on the home front against allegations of corruption that threaten to cut short his term in office.

In an interview with The Times this week, he spoke of a "race against time" to reach an interim accord with the Palestinian Authority in U.S.-backed peace talks before President Bush leaves office in January. "If we miss the opportunity," he said, "then how long will it take before we can restart with a new American administration?"

Broadening his peace effort Wednesday, Olmert went public with the existence, since early last year, of talks between Israel and Syria through Turkish mediators, aimed at ending the two neighbors' long enmity. That represents a longer-term effort by Olmert to end Syria's backing for the Palestinian movement Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel that is not part of the talks with the Palestinian Authority. The move weakens the Bush administration's policy of trying to isolate Syria.

An Israeli-Syrian accord could oblige Israel to return most or all of the militarily strategic Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. In return, Israel would expect Syria to break its alliance with Iran, which backs the Lebanese group Hezbollah as well as Hamas. Israel is alarmed by Hezbollah's recent muscle-flexing in Lebanon, and by Wednesday's internal political agreement there that appears to solidify the group's status as an armed force overshadowing the power of the state.

—Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem