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Opinion: For Israel and Syria, peace is within reach

Why the Obama administration should focus on Israel-Syria relations, over Israel-Palestine.

Participants walk in a marathon, organized to mark the 32nd anniversary of the liberation of the Syrian city of Quneitra in the Golan heights, June 26, 2006. Every house in Quneitra was demolished by Israeli forces before they withdrew from the city under a truce in 1974 that ended a war with Israel. (Khaled Al-Hariri/Reuters)

NEW YORK — To walk through the Syrian city of Quneitra is like visiting the scene of a cataclysmic earthquake. Everywhere, there are mountains of rubble, great mounds of cement blocks, twisted sheets of corrugated metal and spaghettis of iron bars. The flattened carcasses of dozens of homes, shops and schools are lodged into the grassy plain in what once was a town of 20,000 people on Syria's frontier with Israel. The few buildings still standing are disemboweled, their walls punched through by rockets and scarred by bullets.

Quneitra has looked this way for more than three decades, since Israeli forces withdrew from the town a year after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Syrians insist that the Israelis bulldozed or dynamited nearly every building in Quneitra before leaving; Israel claims the town was destroyed during fighting over the Golan Heights.

On orders of the late President Hafez Assad, the Syrian government kept Quneitra a demolished ghost town — an eerie war memorial to its struggle with Israel. On Fridays, Syrian families have picnics in front of the rubble. Municipal officials lead foreign visitors and journalists on choreographed tours. They hand out a hardcover book of photographs titled, "Quneitra: Martyred City."

Syrian officials have a well-rehearsed script, which I heard when I visited Quneitra in 2003. "Every Syrian knows about the Israeli crimes committed in Quneitra," said Mohammed Ali, a government official who organizes the tours. "We're going to keep it this way until all of our territory is liberated."

Quneitra is a symbol of Syria's fixation on regaining every inch of the Golan Heights, a strategic terrain that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. With such a bloody history, is peace possible between Syria and Israel?

The Obama administration has an opportunity to break the current logjam in the Middle East by focusing away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and pushing for renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrian-Israeli track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where the two sides are still far apart on the central issues: Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem. By contrast, the Syrians and Israelis mainly need to negotiate over the return of the Golan Heights, and related security guarantees and water access issues.