The January 16 edition of Ha’aretz revealed that some intrepid Israelis, Syrians and international supporters of peace had come together and cobbled out a document that would serve as the framework for a peace agreement between the two old enemies. It is reminiscent of the early days of the Oslo Accords, before the lawyers (and perhaps more importantly, the Americans) got involved in earnest. In the backwoods negotiations in Oslo, there seemed to have been an honest search for a peace that would produce Palestinian independence and Israeli security. The actual accords would not provide a framework for such a vision, but from all accounts, the initial meetings were idealistic and truly geared toward such an outcome. The Israel-Syria document was probably easier to write up. The terms in it are pretty much what has been understood for some time to be required of both sides for peace. Israel returns the whole of the Golan Heights, Syria ends its belligerence, including material support for Hamas and Hezbollah and pledges not to divert water from the Jordan River or Lake Tiberias. All of this is guaranteed by the international community, led by the United States, which would monitor the border on the ground.
The agreement is so obviously beneficial for all involved that one cannot help but be appalled that it is not immediately embraced by both sides, and more so that something similar was not agreed to a long time, and many lost lives, ago. Still, as with all political matters, even if Israel and Syria did agree to this framework, there would be complications.
The biggest complication would naturally be the Palestinians. No peace made by any Arab state with Israel can ever be a completely warm, friendly peace until the Palestinian issue has been resolved satisfactorily. This is self-evident, and is clearly seen in the cases of the two Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt, which have long-standing peace treaties with Israel. Those treaties have withstood the test of time and sometimes trying circumstances. But relations remain difficult in both cases, and fully normal relations in culture, education and economics have not taken hold. This is so because, no matter what treaties are signed, the Arab public will remain hostile to Israel until the Palestinian issue is settled. Syria would be no different.
For the Palestinians, Syria’s concluding a peace treaty with Israel would fundamentally change their outlook. They would lose yet another Arab country’s support for their armed struggle. Having already lost such support from Egypt many years ago, and more recently from Iraq, losing Syria would further weaken practical, governmental support for armed resistance to the occupation. Syria would quite likely join Egypt and Jordan in being advocates and spokespeople for the Palestinians with the Israeli government, but having Syria in that role doesn’t really help the Palestinians much, precisely because Jordan and Egypt are already there. And a Syrian peace with Israel would mean that Syria would work to prevent renewed Hezbollah attacks on Israel, taking away one of the few strategic allies and sources of physical military support the Palestinians have.
This is also why the Syrian government is today so vehement in its denial of any knowledge of these negotiations. They do not wish to be accused of abandoning the Palestinian cause. Such an accusation would not carry anything like the consequences Egypt faced a quarter century ago when Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords. Sadat was branded a traitor and Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. Assad will not face anything like that in the current climate. This is a mark of a change that Israel has not yet come to grips with; the Arab world, once committed to Israel’s destruction has long since come to understand that it must find an accommodation with Israel. Still, if Syria was seen as dealing with Israel on a separate peace, Assad will need to have the Golan back in order to justify it and quell the inevitable popular anger. And getting the Golan under these terms will be enough to do so.
A peace treaty between Syria and Israel will also have major repercussions in Lebanon, although given the current instability there, those repercussions are harder to predict. Much will depend on how independently strong Hezbollah feels at the time, as well as whether or not Iranian support for Hezbollah can be sustained at some significant level without the Syrian intermediary. If nothing else, the logistics of material support to Hezbollah will become much more difficult for Iran.
Within Israel, this treaty would be a major controversy. Many Israelis continue to subscribe to the idea that the high ground offered by the Golan Heights is a major strategic asset for Syria. Although this view ignores the huge changes in both aerial and satellite surveillance as well as aerial warfare since 1967, it remains a popular notion. In any case, having the US guarding the border should allay any fears of Syria reprising its actions of the 1950s and 60s, when shelling of Israeli kibbutzim from the Golan was a fairly regular occurrence.
But what is more powerful in Israel is the feeling that the Golan, unlike the West Bank and certainly unlike Gaza, is fully a part of Israel. Since the effective annexation of the Golan in 1981, it has functioned as part of the state of Israel in every way. For those who consider the West Bank as “disputed” rather than “occupied” territory, there is no such separation between Israel and the Golan. Also unlike the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the few former Syrians who remain in the Golan are now Israeli citizens. So, unlike the withdrawal from Gaza, this will be seen in some significant sectors of Israel as giving away a part of Israel proper. There will surely be a major political fight over this before it’s over in Israel.
There are other obstacles as well. But the benefits of this peace treaty are so much greater for all concerned, and that includes Israel and the US. In fact, something just like this is exactly what the US desperately needs right now. In some sense, it stands to gain even more than Syria and Israel from a treaty like this one, in the short term. Obviously, with an administration like the present one in power, there is no hope of this being pursued, but it’s worthwhile for us to look at the potential benefits of this agreement.
For Syria, the benefits are enormous. Not only would Bashar Assad regain the Golan Heights, and a very solid chunk of prestige as a result, but Syria would also be removed from the US-Israeli line of fire; it would no longer be a spoke in the axis of evil. Assad’s domestic position would be strengthened despite the sympathy for the Palestinians, because Syria’s security would be greatly enhanced. Finally fulfilling his father’s vow to retrieve the Golan also establishes Bashar Assad as a strong leader, something that has been in question ever since he took over the rule of Syria upon his father’s death. Syria would also have the opportunity to make a name for itself on the international stage by trying to help resolve, or at least improve, the chaotic situation in Iraq. Syria would then be able to look after some of its own concerns, not the least of which is the effect of increased Kurdish influence in Iraq on Syria’s own Kurdish population.
Israel’s benefits could be just as considerable. No single event in Israel’s history did as much to change the landscape of its conflict with its neighbors as the removal of Egypt from the military equation. Israel has not faced a full-scale war since 1973 (this summer’s conflict with Hezbollah, though important in many ways and certainly horrifyingly bloody, was never the threat to Israel that wars with multiple Arab states in the past were), and the threat of such a war was effectively eliminated by the Camp David Accords. Since then, Jordan and Iraq have also been removed from the equation, albeit under very different circumstances.
The countries that invaded the nascent state of Israel in 1948 remained in a technical state of war thereafter. No peace treaties were signed until the one with Egypt. If Syria signs a treaty, joining Jordan and Egypt, the only neighboring country that would retain a technical state of war with Israel would be Lebanon, which would almost certainly follow suit in relatively short order. If such a scenario had been presented to almost any Israeli 30 years ago, she or he would have wept in joy.
Realists both in and outside of the US government surely see the benefits of an Israel-Syria accord quite clearly. Such an event is perfectly in line with the recommendations and analysis of the Baker-Hamilton Group. If the US can be an effective guarantor of security along a new Syrian-Israeli border it would begin to rehabilitate America’s image in the Arab and Muslim world. By bringing Syria to the table, the US would increase its options dramatically in trying to extricate itself from Iraq. And the treaty would remove a key, non-Shiite country from Iran’s circle of influence, dealing a severe blow to Iran’s ability to spread its influence in the Arab world, especially in Lebanon. That would please not only the US, but the key American ally that is far more concerned about Iran than Israel is–Saudi Arabia.
So why won’t it happen?
It is a pretty safe bet that Syria and Israel will eventually reach an accord very much like the one that was reported in Ha’aretz. But it won’t happen now.
It’s not a coincidence that recent months have seen Syria float peace feelers toward Israel. The Syrians surely hoped that they could come away with an agreement that looks very much like this one. And those Syrian calls actually found a fairly receptive, if rather cautious, audience in Israel, and not just among the peace movement. Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter as well as Israel’s Military Intelligence have all recommended at least exploring Syria’s ideas. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has publicly opposed talking to Syria, but many believe she is not actually committed to that stance.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahoronot gave us the clearest insight into the impasse back on October 5. The Hebrew version reported that “US President George Bush said a few days ago that there is no point in discussing an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This is not the time, he told a group of European leaders. A classified report on the content of President Bush’s statement reached the senior political echelon in Jerusalem a few days ago, and was placed on the table of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Americans also sent tough messages to Israel in the past few days about the possibility that Jerusalem might renew negotiations with the Syrians.”
Olmert is not about to cross his good friend George Bush, nor interfere with the neconservative-inspired plans that are still hatching in Washington. And Washington is not interested in seeing a more reasonable Syria, especially not one whose reason must be obtained through negotiations and concessions. That would prove that diplomacy, rather than force, was the preferable option, not only with Syria, but also in Iraq and in dealing with Iran.
This is a very clear case of Washington simply ordering Israel not to pursue a course of peace. It should evoke outrage in Israel. One reason it has not is that Ehud Olmert backed off his initial statement that peace talks with Syria would be contrary to US interests. He changed that stance amid political and media criticism, and quite likely at US behest. His updated version was that no talks with Syria were possible as long as Syria supported terrorism. It’s a very tired, but effective, old tune. Circular logic is its name and it sings of not trying to end a conflict until the fighting stops. The stance has no sense to it, but it does have some measure of popular appeal.
The Israeli refusal may have been ordered by Washington, but the Israeli government cannot escape its own culpability in ignoring not only this document, but months of Syrian offers to restart negotiations. Olmert is by far the weakest leader Israel has ever had, and despite his party’s pretensions toward “centrism”, Kadima is and has always been a right-wing party. Thus, as Ha’aretz’s Uzi Benziman put it in a brilliant op-ed, “This is a ludicrous spectacle, the irony of which fades in light of its depressing significance: Israel’s leaders are trying hard to prove to its citizens that they are not involved in a move to end 60 years of hostility with its Syrian neighbor. These leaders are kowtowing to residents of the Golan Heights, the settlers and the American government.”
And it’s not only Olmert. While Amir Peretz, the Defense Minister from the Labor Party, has advocated exploring Syria’s offer, he has done little to actually make that happen. Even his public statements on the matter have been brief and sporadic. He has certainly not made any effort to organize support in the Cabinet or the Knesset, and the potential for that support is certainly present. While the voices in Israel that wish to pursue peace with Syria are both significant and numerous, the lack of leadership which has plagued the country since the day Olmert took office has spread throughout the political sector. As a result, those more diplomatic voices are isolated and disorganized, unable to even make Olmert respond to them.
There isn’t much more Syria can realistically do. It would be suicidally stupid for them to do as Israel is insisting, and give up their bargaining chips–support for Hezbollah and Palestinian guerilla groups–before the negotiations. No ruler or politician would ever do such a thing. The Syrian leadership has backed off as far as they could in dropping their long-held demand that negotiations resume from where they were left upon Yitzhak Rabin’s death.
Thirty-five years ago, Anwar Sadat offered the Israelis peace on very similar terms to those Israel would eventually agree to years later at Camp David. Golda Meir scoffed at the offer, and the result, in the end, was the Yom Kippur War. There are many Israelis who did learn the lessons of history. Unfortunately, they are not occupying the Prime Minister’s office, nor do they have his ear. Peace with Syria in exchange for the Golan would virtually ensure that Israel will not face another full-scale war in the foreseeable future. Israeli obstinacy makes such a war inevitable, even if it may take some years for it to happen.
Benziman summed it up: “Preserving the status quo will necessarily lead to armed conflict. The assumption that Syria will forever accept the occupation of the Golan is an illusion that will be shattered some day in a bloody war. Israel’s ability to stand strong, on which its deterrence effect is based, can ensure the state’s existence only when it is a peace-seeker; but this ability atrophies when its entire purpose is to perpetuate the occupation… Official Israel is behaving this way to avoid paying the price of peace – giving up the Golan. But in unofficial Israel there is a substantial public that prefers peace over territories.”