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Syria and Israel: deniable peace non-negotiations


Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations were thought to be only a tempting possibility until recently. Now there can be no doubt that serious "Track II" negotiations about Syrian Israeli peace took place, with the knowledge and consent of Israeli and Syrian governments. One set of such negotiations resulted in a non-paper, and the others resulted in non-agreements, and therefore may all be termed "non-negotiations."

These were not real "citizen diplomacy" inasmuch as the people involved were agents of their governments in a very real sense. They are not the same as me writing to a friend in Syria for example, or some Syrian and Israeli businesspeople meeting in a hotel and discussing the weather and the chances for peace.

There were apparently several non-negotiations held. Switzerland mediated talks between "representatives" who discussed the return of the body of executed Israeli agent Eli Cohen. A second set of "feelers" reported by Uzi Arad led him to generate a map of territorial swaps that would supposedly be acceptable to Syria and allow Israel to keep settlements in the Golan. A third set of non-negotiations were non-held in the summer of 2004 and the summer of 2006. They resulted in a non-paper. The non-map produced by these non-negotiations is instructive. The non-negotiations were reportedly attended (or non-attended) by "citizens" such as Vice President Farouk Shara, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and a Syrian intelligence officer with the rank of "general." On the Israeli side, Alon Liel, a former Foreign office official attended, and insists that the Israeli government was informed of the progress of the non-negotiations.

The offer depicted in the map shows the Golan as a park and Syrian demilitarized Zone, with a smaller zone of reduced Israeli military presence inside Israel. This would allow Israel and Syria supposedly to have the Golan and eat it too. It is not clear from the map if Syria would be allowed to keep the areas it conquered by aggression in the 1948 Israeli war of independence, such as Hamat Gader. That would be a violation of the principle that land cannot be acquired by aggressive force. On the Israeli side, the demilitarized zone seems to include a major army base and a major air force base at Mahanaim. The Yarmuk river and other water sources would be within the territory of the demilitarized park but would supposedly be safe from Syrian interference.

There are other concerns that Israel could raise. The Golan, conquered in the 1967 Six day war had been used by Syria as a base for firing on Israeli settlements. It is an important strategic asset. The Syrian government is not particularly stable, and is run by the Assad family of the minority Alawi religious faction. There is no guarantee that a future Syrian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood would not limit access of Israelis to the park for "security reasons." Could limiting access to a park be a casus belli? Jordan prevented Jewish access to the holy places in Jerusalem for 19 years, yet Israel was unable to assert its rights there. The Palestinian authority has violated a similar guarantee concerning the "Joseph's Tomb" site with impunity. For that matter, the Syrians could move tanks and troops into this "demilitarized" zone. The Golan is an area of about 1,000 square kilometers. That is about 5% of the area of Israel, and 0.5% of the area of Syria. The only large city associated with the Golan is Kuneitra, which is in Syrian hands, but which has not been rebuilt by Syria for propaganda reasons. The Golan was originally part of the territory considered to be "Palestine" and was ceded to Syria in the Anglo French agreement of 1923. It has been part of Israel for almost as many years as it has been part of geographical Syria, and for many more years than it was held under Syrian sovereignty following Syrian independence in 1944. The Golan was formally annexed to Israel by Israeli law in 1981, thought the law is recognized by no other state. The Golan settlements have the support of a considerable sector of the population including the Kibbutz movement. Evacuating them would not be a popular move, especially for a weak government that faces a strong right-wing opposition, is plagued by ongoing legal investigations against the Prime Minister and others, and a sexual harassment case that is being prosecuted against a former minister, and is under heavy pressure for failure to cope with Palestinian Qassam rocket attacks and for its incompetent performance in the recent Lebanon war.

Nonetheless, by any measure, this offer represents a serious breakthrough, a change from past Syrian obduracy, and a signal of peaceful intent that should and must not be ignored. Both Israel and Syria denied however, that the non-negotiations had taken place and disowned them. It is impossible for anyone with sense to ignore this failure, apparently due to lack of Israeli government enthusiasm, since we are all painfully aware that Syria has announced its intentions to take back the Golan by force if necessary. Is Israel about to repeat the historic error of Golda Meir, who refused Anwar Sadat's peace offer in 1972, bringing on the Yom Kippur war in 1973?

Can Israel really believe that Syria and the Arab world will allow it to keep all of the Golan heights indefinitely, and that the world will eventually ratify the Israeli occupation of the Golan? If not, then what is the point of keeping the Golan, and investing in settlements there?

The Syrians offered, with the peace non-deal, to end support for the Hezbollah and the Hamas, which would make possible a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Can Israel afford to pass up this opportunity?

The Israeli reluctance is attributed to US pressure, intended to isolate Syria. Syria continues to stir up trouble in Lebanon, the results of which are evident in the Hezbollah attempt to paralyze the Lebanese economy with a more or less open revolt. Syria continues to cement its ties with Iran and to aggravate the situation in Iraq, by all accounts. The US is aiming to isolate Syria and Iran by building a coalition of Sunni Arab states as well, tacitly, as Israel, that will support efforts to save the Lebanese government of Fuad Seniora, stabilize Iraq, and foil Iranian nuclear and geopolitical ambitions. Given that scenario, it is indeed possible that Israel sees a way to keep the Golan with the consent of the United States, and understands that if Syria were to initiate a war to take back the Golan, it would find itself acting alone, without the support of the West and even without the support of Arab countries, relying only on the backing and military cooperation of Iran. It is doubtful that Syria could win such a war militarily. After the Yom Kippur war, Egyptians were able, with American backing to parlay a military defeat into a "victory" and the return of the Sinai. After a Syrian initiated war with Israel, a Syrian military defeat, if serious enough, would result only in support for Israeli territorial gains, and would bring about the fall of the Assad government.

Skeptics can point out that the Syrian government has never really made a serious attempt to take back the Golan since the Yom Kippur war. No guerrillas operate from there. There have been no cease fire violations. Though Kuneitra held 500,000 inhabitants, it could be repopulated. The rest of the Golan was never used for much by Syria and is sparsely populated. The main development undertaken in the Golan by the Syrian government consisted of concrete bunkers, pillboxes, and artillery and and tank emplacements. The main industries in Syrian times were firing on Israeli towns and sabotaging the head waters of the Jordan river to prevent Israel from using them.

The Golan is a useful target for legitimizing the role of the Lebanese Hezbollah as a "resistance" organization, focusing on the absurdly tiny Sheba farms area. Taking back the Golan and making peace with Israel would deprive the Assad family of a convenient external enemy. Skeptics also note that the Syrian peace overtures seem to be intended to foil US efforts at isolating the Syria government, and a means for Syria to trade peace with Israel for de facto occupation of Lebanon.

A much better strategy for the US, that would win wider support in the Middle East perhaps, is to try to draw Syria away from Iran and unite the Sunni Arab world in support of stability in Iraq and containment vis a vis Iran. However some Syrian cooperation is required in order to make that strategy a realistic option. Syria has reiterated on several occasions that it would not give up its relations with Iran. In those circumstance, given that Iran is bent on destroying Israel, Syrian-Israeli peace would be meaningless.

The truth is that neither side has gone nearly far enough on the road to peace. Israel should have been willing to conduct open negotiations, with the cooperation and support of the EU and the United States, for peace with Syria. However, the settlement to be contemplated must include a package deal that would detach Syria from Iran, guarantee the sovereignty and integrity of Lebanon and end Syrian support for Iranian adventurism. Creative thinking about the Golan can also, for example, trade a corridor to the port of Haifa for Israeli territorial acquisitions in the Golan. Most important, Syria has to show the United States that it is really intent on peace and good relations in all areas, beginning with Lebanon.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000561.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 3 comments

"Syria continues to cement its ties with Iran and to aggravate the situation in Iraq, by all accounts..."

By ALL accounts? All? Perhaps you mean by all neo-conservative accounts. If not, can we have a bit of documentation? Otherwise I think we are entitled to disregard this sentence and all the conclusions that flow from it.

Posted by Spike @ 01/24/2007 04:24 PM CST

Honestly the israelis are greedy, and all the wars initiated after 1948 were initiated by israeli military commandos, no the arabs, but like a wild donkey israel continues to suck americas di**k to keep a small chunk of property that isn't theirs, they even send israeli woman as prostitues for america

Posted by jimmy @ 01/25/2007 02:31 AM CST


Posted by Leon Bernotas @ 01/25/2007 10:59 PM CST

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