Alon Liel | Diplomat Israel
May 29th, 2008

Re: ‘Syrian Israeli Peace Process

It was a great week for many of us in Israel. Probably not enough to make the majority yet, but I guess 2-3 million Israelis are happy about the resumption of talks with Syria. I hope and pray that our leadership and our officials will be wise enough, patient enough and courageous enough to break a deal that will enable the majority of Israelis and the majority of Syrians to back it and soon after enter a new regional era.

Last week’s breakthrough would not have taken place if it was not within the basic strategic interest of both Syria and Israel. For many of us here in Israel it is the moment we were waiting for, but the obstacles that lay ahead cannot be underestimated. Relations between Damascus and Jerusalem are far more complex today than they were in 2000, when the last rounds of peace talks between the two countries imploded in Shepherdstown and Geneva, despite the presence of President Bill Clinton—an American statesman fully committed to brokering a peace between the two parties. In 2000, it was still possible to trade the Golan for a peace agreement with Syria without discussing the overall regional situation; today, eight years later, that simple bilateral equation seems totally inadequate.

Since then, Syria has allied itself with Iran, and with other reactionary terrorist forces of the Islamic world. Detaching it from the extremist embrace will be difficult—difficult, but not impossible. Most Middle East scholars recognize that the Syrian-Iranian alliance is not a natural one and is best regarded as a marriage of convenience. In fact, the avowedly secular Syrians have every reason to fear the long term Iranian intentions almost as much as Israel does.

In Israel, too, perceptions have changed. The mood of the country on its sixtieth birthday is hardly euphoric. There is a feeling of despair brought on by the recognition that the Jewish State is an island surrounded by a sea of fundamentalism. Normalization in the relations with Syria (visions of eating humus in Damascus notwithstanding) is no longer widely regarded as an objective worth striving for. This is especially so in light of the cold winds that have been blowing from Cairo for more than a quarter of a century, despite the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace deal in 1979. Moreover, as surface to surface missiles, however primitive, continue to rain down in Sderot and even Ashlekon, the Israeli public is considerably more leery about withdrawing from territory. The mysterious air force raid on Syria’s supposed nuclear facility is also still fresh in the public’s memory.

Indeed, the public opinion hurdle faced by Olmert (and maybe his successor) is not insignificant. For years, public opinion surveys have repeatedly demonstrated that some 70 percent of Israelis oppose withdrawal from the Golan, even when the quid pro quo is a peace agreement with Syria. Tellingly, more Israelis are committed to retaining the Golan than they are to maintaining Israeli sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

For Assad, forsaking his ties with Iran, Syria’s most significant regional ally, is equally problematic. Iran has become Syria’s economic savior. Tehran has not only generously funded Syrian arms purchases, but has also made huge investments in the Syrian economy, most notably in the energy, communications and transport sectors. A deal with Israel would amount to Assad chasing away the Iranian goose that laid the golden eggs. That constitutes a strategic difficulty equal to the one faced by Olmert over conceding the Golan. Both leaders will have to show considerable fortitude and leadership if they are to be remembered in history as peacemakers. Whether or not they are up to the task remains an open question.

Certainly, in the case of Olmert, given his present difficulties and the genuine questions regarding his political longevity, the current situation poses an especially great challenge. Even if he survives as prime minister to the end of his term, it is not at all clear whether he would have the ability to galvanize the Israeli public to support a full Israeli withdrawal. The Golan is not the Gaza Strip and Ehud Olmert is not Ariel Sharon.

To be sure, coming up with an equation that satisfies both sides will be exceedingly difficult. Such an arrangement would have to assure the Syrians that besides regaining sovereignty over the Golan, they would also receive financial and strategic compensation for the loss of Iranian aid. For Syria, a benevolent Lebanon is a “must.” A significant supply of water from Turkey and a new desalination plant will be high on their agenda—compensation for Israel’s continued use of the water sources on the Golan.

For its part, beyond an exchange of ambassadors and a demilitarized Golan, Israel will insist upon guarantees that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and other Palestinian rejectionists will be expelled from Damascus and that the Syrian border will be hermetically sealed against arms smuggling to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Moreover, Israel will press Syria to sever its strategic alliance with Iran. Or course, Damascus would be allowed to continue its diplomatic relations and civilian economic ties, that is, assuming Tehran agrees to that after what would amount to a radical reorientation of Syrian foreign policy. In addition to the above, Syria will have to show flexibility regarding the timetable of the evacuation of Jewish families and the ability of the Israelis to go on with their normal professional life on the Golan after the sovereignty is officially shifting to Syria.

At the end of the day a “territories for peace and reorientation” agreement with Syria is possible. It might not be, at least initially, a very popular deal with the relevant publics in Syria and Israel but it is the task of the leadership to lead the peoples toward a better future and a better world. Once it is a “done deal,” the popular majority in both countries will end up supporting the agreement.

Experience has taught us that the moment the official leadership embarks on peace negotiations, the number of opponents drops by 10 to 15 percent. As the negotiations continue, a growing support mechanism develops. That is particularly so if innovative and creative proposals to reassure the public about its future are brought to the table. These can convince it of the sincere intentions of those sitting across the table.

Because of the wide-scale opposition in Israel to withdrawal from the Golan, the Syrians and Israelis will need to find a creative solution for the future of that territory that will assuage a skeptical Israeli public. One solution might be to establish a nature park in the western one-third of the Golan Heights, which the Israelis could enter without an entry permit (just as the Israelis enter Taba and the Sinai Peninsula). Israeli economic enterprises (premium wine producing facilities, farms, and so forth) would continue to operate on Syrian sovereignty. Syrian citizens would not resettle in that western third of the Golan which will be defined as the park area.

Whatever happens, Washington’s active role, irrespective of who is in the White House, will be critical to the success or failure of the negotiations. Thus far, Washington’s attitude had been unenthusiastic. But if the prospect of luring the Syrians away from the Iranian bosom becomes tangible, it seems reasonable to assume that the Americans will do their best to facilitate an accord. In the meantime, it would behoove the Americans to appoint a high level envoy to act as a catalyst.

With goodwill on both sides, an end to the decades of enmity between Israel and Syria may finally be in the offing. If this will really happen it will much easier to establish a Palestinian state friendly to Israel, and once and for all end the so exhausting Israeli-Arab conflict. It sounds like a dream but it is a little bit closer to reality in face of the very recent Israeli-Syrian events.

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4 Responses to the Article

Naim Nazha MD Says:

It seem that what Israel wants from a peace treaty with Syria is to Isolate the Palestinians, Lebanese and the Iranians , It is not a genuine peace with all involved and until Israel recognise the fact that peace is not a lasting peace without a solution to the Palestinian problem , Israel should move fast in that direction so it can preempt the fundamentalists reach to power as at that time it will be too late for any peace , I wonder if the Israelis are smart enough and have enough foresight to reach an agreement before it is too late , They once asked Rabin about his desire for peace , he said , look at the Balkans they have civil war and will have the same in the Mideast if we do not move to counter religious fever.

AnotherIsraeliGuy Says:

No, Israel has to accept the fact that eventually the fundamentalists will reach power in Arab countries and has to plan for this scenario. Since fundamentalist regimes will be isolated ones, the Arab countries will be much weaker if they choose to be fundamentalist. It is really not a problem for Israel, it is a problem for the Arab world.

sam Says:

That was a great comment. But if I can answer a question of reality or fantasy. Do you believe there will be a kind of peace where both Syrians and Isrealies can visit each others country and have good relations. Not a cold peace like with Egypt and Jordan, I mean a peace where both can thrive financially and culturally, where ordinary citizens establish commerce with each other? I’m an American born to imigrants from Syria. I’m 33 years old, and dream of visiting Bethlehem, and also Jerusalem, Although I have a U.S. passport, having it stamped with Isreali marks is an almost immediate arrest at the airport, under some kind of suspicion. I do want to go to from without problem. Inshalla there will be that kind of peace.

AnotherIsraeliGuy Says:

Sam,
The Israeli passport control are aware of this problem and if you ask your passport not to be stamped they will oblige.

In the worst case, you can always ask for a new American passport. So don’t wait! Come visit now.

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