MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
There is little doubt that Bashar Assad, President of Syria, is serious about his offer to negotiate peace with Israel. This is the current assessment of Israeli military intelligence. There is also little doubt that Israel will not respond to his offer. Peace would mean giving up the Golan heights, and Ariel Sharon is not about to give up the Golan heights.
The traditional official attitude of Israel to peace talks with Arab countries was always extremely positive. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat proposed to open peace talks with Israel in 1977, it seemed the fulfillment of what had been a primary Israeli diplomatic goal since 1948: to get the Arab world to recognize the existence and legitimacy of the Jewish state. The formal basis of peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries is UN Security Council 242, passed in 1967 with Israeli approval. Resolution 242 calls upon Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the 6-day war, and recognizes the rights of all states in the region to live in peace within internationally recognized borders. Israel fought long and hard to ensure that the resolution specified "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" rather than withdrawal from all territories, a point that Arab countries refused to concede. However, faced with the real possibility of peace, Israel yielded the point. To achieve peace with Egypt, Israel conceded all of the Egyptian land occupied in 1967, every last millimeter, including settlements in Sinai, including oil wells developed by Israel, and including the strategically vital Sharm El-Sheikh.
The sacrifice was worth it. The peace with Egypt, and later with Jordan, seemed to bring about a revolution in the Middle East. Israel was no longer called "the Zionist Entity" in Arab world radio and television broadcasts. Arab politicians referred to Israel, and even to peace with Israel. The incredible became commonplace. The commonplace became banal. However, Syria and Iraq, more or less alone in the Arab world, continued to lead the "refusal front," the countries that would not have anything to do with Israel on any terms, and that continued to be faithful to the 1967 resolutions of the Khartoum conference with its three "no's" - no peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel. However, after the Oslo accords and the fall of his Soviet patrons, Hafez Assad tried to work his way out of his increasing isolation, and opened peace negotiations with Israel. These negotiations that eventually led to nothing, apparently because Israel would not agree to return to Syria the tiny frontage on the sea of Galilee that they had captured in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.
Reversing his father's policies, Bashar Assad made the mistake of supporting Saddam Hussein. After the fall of Saddam, Assad finds himself even more isolated, and facing increasing internal pressure for democratization and for a peace agreement that would bring prosperity to Syria, as well as the security of American support. However, Assad is unwilling to give up his support of the Hizbollah in Lebanon in advance of such an agreement. He may not intend to give it up at all, since Lebanon may be ungovernable without the Hizbollah, and Assad has no intention of giving up Syria's position in Lebanon.
Israel for its part, is not in a hurry to make peace with Syria. It is axiomatic in the Arab world that the peace between Israel and Egypt established a precedent: any country that makes peace with Israel will get back all of its lands, in accord with the Arab intepretation of UN SC resolution 242. However, that is not necessarily the case. The peace with Egypt and with Jordan, with whom there were little or no territorial issues, changed the political map of the Middle East. Israel was no longer so hungrey for peace as it had been in 1977. The second or third country to make peace with Israel will not necessarily get the same "deluxe" conditions as Egypt. The Golan settlements, despite their tiny population of about 17,000 have a powerful lobby. They are supported not only by "Greater Israel" fanatics, but by labor party kibbutzim who remember the terror of Syrian shelling that was part of every day life before the 6-day war. Syria alone could not make war on Israel, and poses no strategic threat.
Of course, Israel could simply go to the negotiating table and insist on its own terms. However, from the Israeli point of view, there is a danger that Bashar Assad will make the US an offer they cannot refuse. That is, in return for peace and return of the entire Golan on Syrian terms, Syria will cooperate totally in the war on terror, and help stop the infiltration of supplies for terrorists in Iraq. The US would then apply pressure on Israel to make a deal.
Following Assad's recent surprising offer, there was equally surprising silence from Israel. The answer may have been given obliquely, through last week's announced approval of a plan to add several hundred families of settlers to the Golan. This plan was touted by Agriculture Minister Israel Katz as Israel's answer to Bashar Assad's peace offer, though members of the government coalition quickly showed that the plan had been under study for a long time before Assad made his offer. Deputy PM Ehud Olmert told the BBC in an interview that there were in fact no plans to expand settlement in the Golan, but nobody in the cabinet officially contradicted Katz's version, designed to garner votes among the party's right wing, and more important, nobody in the Likud supported suspending or stopping the settlement plan.
Ariel Sharon's core support comes from hard-line supporters of Greater Israel, who insist that any peace with Arab countries or Palestinians is a fraud, and that Israel should be ready to give only "peace for peace" rather than land for peace. Sharon has already alienated that support by announcing his willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians, and even to withdraw unilaterally. He is not about to open a second front for dismantlement of Greater Israel. Therefore, while Israeli politicians will continue to say that no nation wants peace more than the Jewish people, they are not going to open negotiations with Syria any time soon.
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Replies: 3 comments
Penetrating stuff. It's too bad that Asad can't simply come up with a territorial concession of his own, dropping any claim to land beyond the international boundary. This would mean abandoning the Syrian claim to the Kinneret shoreline and more or less accepting the last offer of the Barak government, relayed through Bill Clinton in Geneva.
It would be difficult for the govt of Israel to refuse such an offer, and were they to accept it, it would make a point to the Palestinians what everybody is supposed to know: that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
But it seems this is not in the cards.
Posted by Josh @ 01/05/2004 07:21 AM CST
1) Why would Syria abandon part of the land he lost in the war? Asad could be even more hard to convince than his father would have been: he has yet to prove himself.
2) What about the Syrian population of the Golan heights, people whom I read consider themselves still as Syrians?
Posted by Paul @ 01/08/2004 01:16 AM CST
Why would Germany abandon all the land that it lost in WW II?
In any case, that is the problem of the Syrians, not the Israelis. The fact is, Israel at this point would not gain very much from peace with Syria, which would not offer a warm peace in any case, and which insists on its right to support the Hizbollah, and which has clarified that it wants right of return for the Palestinians too. Why would it be attractive for Israel to give up the Golan in return for the right for Syria to recall their ambassador semi-permanently as the Egyptians did?
Golan heights is an itsy bitsy part of Syria. It is 22 square miles in all. Better to ask why Syria would insist on getting back this tiny bit of land, rather than making peace and getting the support of the USA?
In ten years, Israel might understand that it made a mistake not to make peace with Syria when it could. Maybe, Maybe not. But statecraft doesn't always look that far ahead. Right now, Syria needs desperately to get out of the hole it dug for itself with the US by supporting Saddam.
Posted by Moderator @ 01/12/2004 07:11 PM CST
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