Shai | Internet entrepreneur Israel
May 29th, 2008

Re: ‘Syrian Israeli Peace Process

On Wednesday, May 21st, 2008, the ground shook in the Middle East. Two separate and significant conflicts suddenly and simultaneously headed in the right direction – that of peace. The warring Lebanese factions meeting in Doha at last reached an agreement, after 18 months of great tension, and Israel and Syria announced the restart of formal peace talks, after 8 years of near-silence. Many throughout the region celebrated the news. But others looked upon it with cynical, distrustful eyes. Polls published the following morning in Israel showed a clear majority against a withdrawal, even in return for peace. Is there room, therefore, for optimism? Certainly there is.

Rather than addictively clinging to the hopeless Palestinian track, Israeli leaders are at last choosing a more sensible opportunity, and one that has been knocking at their doorstep for nearly four years. Never in the past has another Arab leader voiced his hope to make peace and end the history-long conflict of his nation with Israel, as has Bashar Assad of Syria. Not a month went by without public and private hints given by the Syrian dictator, through every possible channel, calling out for peace.

The gradual return of the Golan Heights to Syria, under various propositions and arrangements that came up in recent years, will undoubtedly contribute to a new and stabilizing reality in the region. This reality will not only lead to the near-immediate adoption of peaceful relations by the rest of the Arab world, but will equally press the Palestinian people to at last reach a consensus about their own claims and demands vis-à-vis Israel. Peace with Syria could quite possibly be Israel’s most effective tool against Iran’s belligerent stance, and may well trigger renewed efforts to solve the current crisis, in light of a newly created “peaceful atmosphere” in the region.

So how does all this play out? In the coming months, Syria and Israel will be forced to discuss the so-called “Rabin Deposit.” Israel will dismiss it, claiming it was never an official proposal, and Syria will make clear it intends to accept nothing less. There will naturally be quite a few ups-and-downs, temporary “crises”, walkouts, as well as massive use and manipulation by both sides of international, regional, and local media. No side will be able to “sell” the agreement to its people, without first proving its ability to fight to the last drop at the negotiating table. Much sweat and drama are to be expected. But in the end, the sides will reach the necessary compromises, and will offer their respective nations a deal they “cannot refuse”. And a peace agreement will be signed.

And what will such an agreement entail? Naturally, the return of the entire Golan to Syria. The definition of “entire” will be reached by agreement through negotiation. Will the border pass along the shores of Lake Kineret, 10 meters away, or 400 (as Netanyahu once proposed)? Timetables will be defined. Will Israel withdraw over a period of 5 years, or 15? And what will happen in the interim period? All these will be included in the agreement. So will military and security issues including demilitarization, early-warning stations, cross-border activity, passage of armaments to Hezbollah, etc. Energy and water resources will be discussed, with creative solutions found, including cooperation already offered by Turkey, as well as the European Community, and other third parties.

No peace agreement between Israel and Syria can be forged without special attention given to the Palestinian issue. Syria may not require that an Israel-Palestine peace agreement be reached first, but it will place certain demands to be met in order for an agreement with Israel to be respected. These could include: the cessation of all settlement activity in the West Bank, the involvement of Hamas in future negotiations, a formal declaration by Israel recognizing the June 1967 lines as the basis for a permanent border between Israel and Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinian right-of-return will be discussed, and will relate especially to the 400,000 Palestinian refugees currently living in Syria. Their political and citizen status, their ability to return to a future Palestine, or to choose financial compensation instead, will all be part of the agreement. It will be made clear that, unlike the Egyptian-Israeli agreement, this one will directly involve the critical Palestinian issues, and will put to rest the concerns and fears of many in the region, first and foremost the Palestinians, that peace could once again come at their expense. Without the comprehensive character, an agreement with Syria will lead, at best, to superficial peace.

There will also be a significant part relating to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, which remain of gravest concern to Israel. Israel will demand the dissolution of Syria’s contacts with these. Syria will have to compromise and swallow this “bitter pill”, but will likely agree only to change the nature of its military ties, over a specified period of time, and as a direct function of the implementation by Israel of its part of the agreement. Syria will not agree to do away with any of its political alliances. It will not be easy to “sell” this to Israelis, as they still view Syria’s allies as terrorist organizations or supporters thereof, and will fear continued relations between them. Our leadership will likely describe the agreement as essentially ending all military influence by Iran in the region, including its presence in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

This, I believe, is the likely course of development in the upcoming peace talks, and the contents of such an agreement if indeed reached. But what if we’re wrong? What if this is an overly optimistic exercise in wishful thinking? It is indeed worth mentioning that talks can also break down. Assad himself has said that Syria and Israel have essentially agreed already upon 80% of the issues. But we could find the remaining 20% extremely difficult to overcome. Or, there may be certain conditions each side will place upon the other, which will in time prove unacceptable and may lead to the cessation of talks. I believe this will not occur so quickly. Both sides have a shared history of endless failures to reach an agreement, and both sides desperately want to succeed this time. With time, the price for failing to reach an agreement is growing ever more expensive, and our leaders know and understand this quite well, often when others do not. Failure may usher in a brand new regional conflict, which will doubtless skip over Israel or Syria. Neither nation wishes to further endanger its people. They will, therefore, find the way to succeed. And they will come to agreement.

The main hurdle to peace, however, is likely to be public opinion. In Israel, most citizens today view the Golan as part of Israel. Most of us refer to Israelis living in the West Bank as “settlers”, but not so with those on the Golan. If talks last a good while, there is a fair chance that a law will be passed in Knesset requiring a national referendum prior to the withdrawal from the Golan. And, as things look at the moment, most Israelis are against the withdrawal, even in return for peace. The levels of distrust and suspicion towards Syria and its intentions (given the continued support of HA, Hamas, and Iran) are at an all time high. And, unlike Lebanon or Gaza, the Golan will not be returned without at least the support of the majority in Knesset. No Israeli leader, therefore, will be able to ignore Israeli public opinion, and conclude or deliver a peace agreement with Syria on his/her own.

So how do we overcome this hurdle? With continuous and relentless efforts to change public opinion on the ground, by presenting to Israelis the advantages of peace, and the dangers of the status quo. Israelis must become aware of the ongoing contact between Syria and Israel over the years (mostly unofficial), of Syria’s change in strategic outlook towards Israel, and of her rationale behind her political alliances in the region. Israelis must learn to understand Syria’s concerns, and begin to change their view of Syria as a state supporter of terrorism. Israelis must, in short, begin viewing Syria as an ordinary nation, that has been our enemy for decades, but that is willing to end its conflict with Israel, once and for all.

Many of us, perhaps most, still find it easier to adopt a skeptical outlook on peace between Jews and Arabs. For Israelis, ongoing support for Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and for Hamas’s Qassam rockets in Gaza, all indicate intentions other than peaceful by Syria. To Arabs, the same conclusion is reached about Israel, when viewing its continued Occupation and mistreatment of the Palestinians over so many years. Indeed both sides greatly suspect, fear, and distrust one another. And each side is convinced it has all the legitimate reasons to do so. The failed attempts to make peace over the years only serve as reinforcements to this belief. Yet we cannot escape the understanding that peace will only occur between enemies. And enemies do not tend to exhibit peaceful intentions until the very last moment, when an agreement is reached. The “hand shake” will come at the end, not the beginning.

We must all recognize that it is completely within human nature to adopt a pessimistic outlook on what may seem to be insurmountable challenges. That way, when things turn out for the worse, we’re never surprised. It is a defensive mechanism for most people, and it makes sense. But in order to make peace, leaders must let go of this innate shield, and prove their ability to look much farther into the future, and to make tough decisions that serve the best interests of their people. Both Syria and Israel have proven their courage numerous times on the battlefield. It is now time to be no less courageous on the road to peace.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (6 votes, average: 4.33 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

8 Responses to the Article

Alex Says:


It shows from your carefully balanced words how experienced you are by now with the many sensitivities from both sides.

Qifa Nabki Says:


Superb essay. You bring out how complex this process will be, but you also give me hope that it is doable. It will require our best minds, and our best foot forward… but maybe, just maybe, it will work. 😉

david s Says:

Very interesting my friend. I enjoyed your assessment and can identify with much of it.

qunfuz Says:

Excellent points, Shai. Your ability to clearly identify and understand the worries of the other side is very refreshing. If you were in charge in Israel, I would be very optimistic.

I have some quibbles with your comments on the Palestinians – I think there already is a near consensus amongst them, and I don’t think it’s compatible with Israel remaining a Jewish state – but no time to go into that now.

AnotherIsraeliGuy Says:

What are the concrete advantages of peace with Syria for Israel?

Shai Says:

AIG, are you seriously asking “why should one nation have peace with another?”

AnotherIsraeliGuy Says:

No, I am specifically asking why Israel should have peace with Syria since we will have to pay a price for this peace. The price we will pay is clear, so I am asking you to be very clear about the advantages of peace so we can see if the price is worth it.

ayman hakki Says:

Well written essay and I’m not surprised that it was written by a guy named Shai. What I love about Jews is; everything. But what Jews don’t know about us Syrians, is that we are so…alike. I was at a Bar Mitzvah at The Tavern on the Green in NYC in 2000. My wife and I thought we could tell which Damascus family every table seemed to be from! I don’t know any Israelis-as an adult-but if they look and act like US Jews then our mutuality is a given. This mutuality is not shared by Israelis and Egyptians (for instance), so it will be a dividend that may pay off. Lack of mutuality leads to belligerency and this state diminishes all. Belligerency is the cause of the region’s fundamentalist swing, it is the cause of Sectarianism’s rise, and it is the cause of all that ails us both, as people. Before 1948 we Syrians were electing a Christian prime minister, allowing women to vote (before the USA) , and on our way to a parliamentary democracy. Israel may not have directly caused all that to change, but the belligerency inherent in our struggle with Israel caused us to lose our way towards the future and muddle towards the past. The same concept must apply to Israel.

Leave a Reply

« Return to Main Page