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Israel - Syria Negotiations and their Possible Impact on Israel - Palestinian Peace


The recent announcement from Israel and Syria that they are engaged in negotiations for a comprehensive peace treaty through Ankara took some by surprise. However, in retrospect perhaps there was no reason for the surprise. Syria seeks to regain the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 war and it also wants to re--establish a relationship with Washington. In its view, the best hope of reestablishing full ties with the US would be through talks with Israel. Economic reasons also motivate Damascus; this relates to the fact that the Syrian economy, unlike its GCC counterparts, is sluggish and needs significant amounts of foreign currency to kickstart the local economy. However Syria understands that no international investor would make a large investment into a country not at peace with its neighbours. In addition, there are other domestic constraints compelling Damascus towards a peace settlement with Israel. Political repression combined with poor economic prospects results in the minority Alawite regime facing the brunt of popular anger. One form of this popular anger is the emergence of radical Islam. According to Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara, radical Islam constitutes a threat to Syria and a peace deal with Israel is the only way to halt it. Presumably this would necessitate greater security cooperation between Israel and Syria on this issue.

Israel, too, sees itself as gaining from a peace deal with Syria. First, it seeks to drive a wedge between Syria and its key ally Iran -- thereby isolating Tehran even further. Second, Israel hopes that Syria will also sever its ties to both Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- both of the latter organisations have headquarters in Damascus. Third, at a more personal level, some commentators felt that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was making use of the talks with Syria to divert attention from his legal troubles. In this regard, these commentators point to the timing of Olmert's announcement of the discussions with Syria -- he made the announcement two days before he faced a police interrogation over bribery allegations.

However, more pressingly, the question we have to ask is what are the implications for the future of Israeli--Palestinian peace given the talks between Israel and Syria? Despite President Bush's new--found zeal for an Israeli--Palestinian peace settlement before he leaves office and his trips to the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Washington has been confined to the margins of the region. It was Qatar, as opposed to the US, which successfully mediated to prevent further bloodshed in Lebanon. Similarly, Egypt is attempting to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, with no US role. The current talks between Syria and Israel are being held through Turkey as opposed to the US. Even more tellingly, it is being done despite US objections. What all this tells us is that the hardline policies of the Bush Administration are backfiring; it is increasingly being consigned to the fringes of the Middle East, even by its allies who are willing to see the subtle nuances and, consequently, are willing to adopt a more flexible posture. However, the marginalisation of the US may not be a good thing for the Palestinians since, arguably, it is only Washington that has the strategic leverage to force Israel to make the concessions necessary for a viable two--state solution.

As for Syria withdrawing its support from Hamas in any peace deal with Israel, perhaps Israel should reconsider this. Hamas is not a homogenous entity and consists of three increasingly separate entities, centred around Ismail Haniya, Mahmoud Zahar and Khaled Meshal who lives in Damascus. Thus one gets contradictory signals from Hamas. Ahmed Youssef, a senior political adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya sent a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saying, "Many people make the mistake of presuming we have some ideological aversion to making peace. Quite the opposite, we have consistently offered dialogue with the US and the EU to try and resolve the very issues that you were trying to deal with in Annapolis." Haniya, meanwhile has called for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. On the other hand, Mahmoud Zahar and his faction are pressing for an escalation of the conflict against both Fatah and Israel. In another incident, Haniya sought to reach a deal with the Israelis about the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas fighters in June 2006, but Khaled Meshal torpedoed this. Thus in my view, Damascus' distancing itself from Hamas may not be such a good strategy; rather Damascus should be leaned on to make use of its influence within Hamas to strengthen the forces of pragmatism and moderation.

If prospects for Israel--Palestinian peace are to be realised, then we need to understand the complexity of the different players and to see the interconnections between ostensibly different sets of peace negotiations. This would compel us to adopt more nuanced understandings and more nuanced positions in the quicksand that is Middle East politics.

Hussein Solomon

Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria where he is also Director of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS). Originally published in Bulletin #32/2008 of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria. Reproduced by permission.

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