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Israel and Syria: Not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity


History reveals strange and unpleasant truths. In a few years, it may be remembered that the worst error of the current Israeli government was not the mishandling of the Lebanese war or the failure to learn the lessons of that war. The worse error of the current government is probably being committed right now.

The Syrian government, in the persons of President Bashar Assad and Foreign minister Walid Moallem, has offered to begin unconditional peace negotiations. The old conditions that formed a barrier to negotiations, that the negotiations begin where they left off when they were broken off by Hafez Assad, is longer in place. Moallem's offer was made in an interview with David Ignatius, published in the Washington Post. Moallem referred to the "noble cause" of peace between Syria and Israel, a dramatic change from the historic stand of Syria. Syria has led the "refusal" camp since 1977, blackening Egypt for making peace with Israel.

To be sure, the offer was far from perfection and honesty. Moallem insisted that Syria is not arming Hezbollah or supporting Hamas or destabilizing Lebanon. But Moallem is a diplomat, and it is the job of a diplomat to tell lies. To be sure also, offer of talks without preconditions was ambiguous. The question was about Israel, but the answer was not necessarily about Israel. This is the critical question and answer:

Q: Finally, Recommendation 16 says that in return for Syrian help in all these matters, Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria. Is that a precondition, for Syria--that it would get the Golan back in any negotiations?

A: There is no precondition. A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions. Dialogue has a literature (of proper procedure). You don't put demands. You put agreed goals. Under this, you put each side's commitment to achieve the goals in a parallel way. This is how we understand constructive dialogue.

This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon.' Our only goal is to get the return of Syrian occupied territories, to get Syrian regional stability.

Everyone must decide for themselves if Moallem was talking about preconditions for talks with Israel or preconditions for talks with the USA about Lebanon. If the goals must be agreed, and the Syrian's only goal is to get the return of Syrian occupied territories, is that a precondition, or is it not a precondition?

Still, I must agree with Haaretz that Moallem's offer should be tested, must be tested. What is to be gained for Israel, the United States, Syria and the entire Middle East? In the best case, for Israel, a chance to remove an enemy on its northern and northeastern borders. With Syria part of the peace camp, the Arab "refusal front" would collapse, living only Iran isolated among regional states that refuse in principle to make peace with Israel. Syrian support for Hezbollah would collapse, ameliorating the threat to Lebanon and perhaps making possible peace between Lebanon and Israel. Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups would collapse, hopefully making possible peace between Israel and the Palestinians. With Syrian backing, peace might be concluded with all Arab states, along the lines of the Saudi peace initiative. Syria would be torn out of the Iranian-Syrian alliance, simplifying the problem of dealing with Iranian nuclear ambitions and presenting a united Middle Eastern opposition front to Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony. Syrian cooperation might be enlisted for US efforts in Iraq as well.

We know it is not necessarily going to happen that way. We still remember the emergency Arab summit in Cairo in the autumn of 2001, when Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a client of the United States and ostensibly at peace with Israel, helped to lead the way in encouraging Palestinian violence and refusal of US mediated peace efforts.

Suppose that Israel returns the Golan and finds that it has a non-peace with Syria? Or suppose that the Syrian government, not particularly stable, falls into the hands of extremists who denounce the peace process, as Hamas has done in the Palestinian territories? Israel has not gotten a great deal of international support in dealing with the problems created by the victory of the Hamas, or the horrific aftermath of its withdrawal from Gaza. In the worst case scenarios, the Golan Heights, like the Gaza strip, can become a launching area for terror attacks or even a war on Israel, with UN Human rights bodies, Amnesty and other groups condemning Israel for defending itself.

However, the alternative to encouraging the Syrian offer is far more dangerous and immediate. Syria has made no secret that it is preparing to take back the Golan by force if necessary. This might involve a conventional attack, or more likely, trained guerrillas who will use Hezbollah strategy to attack Israel, protected by an umbrella of Syrian armor, rockets and artillery.

The Israeli government has rebuffed the Syrian proposals. Both Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert noted that Syria continues to support Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups. Is it really the United States that is preventing a positive Israeli reply, as Walid Moallem has claimed? True, Syria houses Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and his minions. Then again, Jordan also housed Mr. Meshal, though Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel. Perhaps it is rather that the current weak government is afraid of losing right-wing support if it even mentions the possibility of giving up the Golan Heights. Olmert may be more afraid of Bibi Netanyahu than he is of Bashar Assad.

Nobody in Israel can forget that Golda Meir turned down Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace overtures in 1972. If there is a war in another year or two, will we blame it on the short-sightedness of the current government?

Perhaps the reasonable thing to do is to literally follow the logic of Yitzhak Rabin's dictum, "the depth of the withdrawal will be equal to the depth of the peace." Instead of a "dramatic breakthrough" and a photo-op, start with practical steps: negotiate a limited Israeli withdrawal in return for a non-belligerence pact, and an end to Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas. At the same time, negotiate a US aid package in return for Syrian cooperation in Iraq and Lebanon. Those steps will not bring about a Messianic vision of peace, but they would build trust and lay the groundwork for a lasting peace - if they are successful.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 1 Comment

"Syria has made no secret that it is preparing to take back the Golan by force if necessary."

For real? They would have to be gluttons for punishment. Do you have serious evidence of this?

"Olmert may be more afraid of Bibi Netanyahu than he is of Bashar Assad."

This has much more of the ring of truth about it. An external enemy is normally considered positively useful.

You make a number of questionable assumptions, for instance that Hezbollah and Hamas are essentially arms of Syrian state policy. I think the evidence is that both organisations have considerably more autonomy.

I think what it boils down to is that while the Israeli people would benefit from peace with Syria, the Israeli ruling class would not, so it won't happen unless the USA makes it happen. I think that's what Moallem actually means.

Posted by Spike @ 12/19/2006 06:03 PM CST

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