Israel's previous Prime Minister, Olmert, in his explanation of the importance of peace with Syria, noted that Israel's northern border remains a primary area of concern for regional stability and Israeli security. Israel's former foreign minister, Livni, also commented to the effect that for Israel, peace with Syria will require a clear Syrian denunciation of terror and a severing of links to groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas, whose leader actually lives in Damascus. Syria and Iran also recently made a joint statement that they support the Palestinian "resistance" which Israelis read as--attacking Israel, i.e. terrorism.
Things have changed somewhat though. The same day that the US expressed its support for such a peace, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an interview with Russian journalists said that Israel would never give back the Golan heights which were captured in the 1967 Six Day war. This position is not too novel though since the Golan Heights Law which extends Israeli law to the Golan Heights and is widely viewed as Israeli annexation of the region is well known and has been in force since 1981. It is a position antithetical to the Syrian one, however, as Syria has made clear that they will not engage in direct negotiations with Israel until Israel agrees that it will give up the Heights. In other words, unless the concession is made in advance, no direct discussions will take place.
Perhaps such an impasse may be broken by a new "combined approach" that Jordan is now discussing with the US that could see Israel, Lebanon, Syria and others (the US and other Arab states one imagines) come together to try to resolve their differences once and for all. Another question to ask though is, is it worth it to make peace with Syria now?
This question should not be misinterpreted. Of course there should be peace, and fully normalized beneficial relations. This in itself is a goal worth achieving. The Golan is a very emotional issue in Israel and it's not clear that Israel will be getting the right bang for it's buck.
Now, from the Golan, Israel receives invaluable security from a formidable natural barrier on it's northern frontier and a state of the art, top-secret listening post atop Mount Hermon, a peaceful population with a productive agricultural sector including fruit and wine, an important site for tourism, and perhaps most importantly, water resources. The capture of the Golan heights and its subsequent defence in the 1973 war cost Israel a great deal of blood and giving up the region for less than a great deal is seen by some to be a waste of the lives spent to take and hold the hills. Ha Am Im Ha Golan (The Nation Includes the Golan) is a popular slogan in Israel.
Syria is asking that Israel promise to give this region back before direct talks begin. Israel, is asking for, amongst other things, Syria to cut its ties to terrorism and reduce relations with Iran. As for Netanyahu's hard line position: there's no question that this non-starter from the Syrian perspective stops progress towards peace in its tracks. Nonetheless, it is a statement, it can be reversed and one hopes it is merely a hard line negotiation position taken prior to talks and more of a bargaining chip than an irreversible policy.
In a nutshell, the trade seems to be, in addition to peace, Israel will give Syria this land that is so important to it, and Syria will promise not to deal with terrorists anymore, and maybe talk to Iran a bit less (which is a strange thing to ask.) There is no "hot" conflict in the Golan heights so there's no urgency to such an agreement, therefore, there also seems to be little gain for Israel to give up this territory in exchange for promises which may or may not be kept. Support for terrorists does not need to be as overt as it currently is. What stops Syria from officially cutting its ties to Hamas with a wink and a nod and send along money and arms more covertly than it currently does. As for Hizbollah, this Lebanese group with strong ties to Syria not only fights Israel, but plays an important role in Lebanese politics, a game Syria has long been involved in. Cutting their ties to Hizbollah would also mean Syria cutting its ties to an important Lebanese political ally. Syria may not be too keen on taking its fingers out of the cookie jar.
The point is, giving up the Golan for promises not to do something which can easily be done covertly and are within Syria's interests to continue doing seems like a raw deal. Full relations with Syria could be a good thing, and may in the long term, convince Syria that it is not in their interests to support attacks against their new, friend on their southern border. In the interim, however, Israel should not be too quick to bet the farm.