There’s a dance going on between Syria and Israel over the resumption of peace talks. It’s a jig that’s complicated by the various military maneuvers of each side, the resistance of the Bush administration, and the demands of the Olmert government. Ultimately, peace overtures are likely to fall short – at least for the time being.
First, some background. Israel invaded the Golan Heights, a very fertile and beautiful part of Syria, back in 1967. They have yet to give it up, and Syria considers it the defining issue of contention in their frosty relationship [left: a photo I took in Damascus that reads: “The Golan is Syrian land.”] Now, some 20,000 Jewish settlers and a roughly similar number of Arabs live in the Israeli-occupied territory. Under the 1974 ceasefire agreement brokered by Henry Kissinger, a demilitarized separation barrier has been created between the two countries, now patrolled by 1,000 UN blue helmets. The strip of land fluctuates between several miles and just a few hundred yards in width.
There have been several attempts to normalize relations and negotiate an agreement over the future of the Golan. As a result of the discussions started at the 1991 Madrid Conference, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin engaged in several years of discussions, but no deal was reached. There were then talks during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure, continuing into the premiership of Israel’s Ehud Barak. In 1999-2000, the most vigorous attempt was made to end the longstanding dispute. With Clinton acting as the mediator, Assad and Barak failed to reach a deal – but they came extremely close. Directly after the Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006, Hafez’s son and now the current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, offered to engage with Israel again in a renewed effort to reach a final agreement. As the International Crisis Group recalls [PDF], “In a series of interviews with leading international media organisations [in 2006], he offered a vision of Israel and Syria living ‘side-by-side in peace’. Negotiations could resume without preconditions, a deal could be concluded within six months, normalisation under the terms of the Arab League (Beirut) initiative would result, he said. In an interview with Der Spiegel – which some Israelis hailed as ‘remarkable’ – Syria distanced itself from Iran and its president’s call for Israel’s destruction.”
But Olmert turned down the offer. In fact, Olmert has been adamant about not giving up the Golan in any future agreement with Syria. That said, past Israeli leaders have reneged on their pledges before – Sharon on withdrawing from Gaza, for example – and there is no reason that Olmert couldn’t change his mind. In fact, he himself has said that “the worst thing that can happen to any leader is to fall in love with what he has said in the past, overlook changed circumstances and continue to repeat what he said in the past only because he once said it. I am not made this way. I am ready to re-examine my premises every day, and see whether they are still applicable.”
For the Syrians, retaking the Golan is often considered the country’s number one foreign policy priority. Damascus’s relationship with Hezbollah, attempts to dominate Lebanon, and the funneling of aid to groups like Hamas are all strategies that are being manipulated as bargaining chips to achieve a settlement with Israel. Syria realizes, and correctly so, that unless they have a set of carrots to offer the Israelis, they’re never going to get back the territory that they lost in 1967. On the Israeli side, there is a realization that peace with Syria must ultimately come through relinquishing the Golan; nonetheless, such a move raises concerns about security, and there are also domestic political constraints. Only around 30 of the 120 Knesset members support a withdrawal, and only 14% of Israeli Jews do.
Nonetheless, the barrier of public opinion is not impenetrable. When Barak was negotiating with Assad in 2000, Israeli popular support for a withdrawal-for-peace plan was at 60%. Many analysts think that when confronted with a full-scale peace offer, most Israelis will change their minds like they did in the past. It is only in the aftermath of the Hezbollah-Israeli war and 8 years of cool relations that public opinion has turned sour on a Golan withdrawal. One member of the right-wing Yisraeli Beiteinu party put it like this: “Israeli public opposition to a Golan withdrawal is a state of mind. It can be changed. If it’s a good agreement I believe Olmert can achieve the 61 Knesset votes required. You cannot produce a cake overnight – it takes time to bake. Even [hard-line Knesset member Avigdor] Lieberman might be ready in six-months time.”
So, negotiating a long-term peace agreement between Syria and Israel is definitely not out of the question, and there is certainly common bargaining space. Consider, for example, the back-channel negotiations that occurred between Alon Liel, a high-level unofficial Israeli diplomat, and Abe Suleiman between 2004-2006. Over the two-year period, the track-two negotiators hammered out an extremely impressive agreement. Check this out:
As part of the agreement on principles, Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of 4 June, 1967. The timetable for the withdrawal remained open: Syria demanded the pullout be carried out over a five-year period, while Israel asked for the withdrawal to be spread out over 15 years. At the buffer zone, along Lake Kinneret, a park will be set up for joint use by Israelis and Syrians. The park will cover a significant portion of the Golan Heights. Israelis will be free to access the park and their presence will not be dependent on Syrian approval.
Israel will retain control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret. The border area will be demilitarized along a 1:4 ratio (in terms of territory) in Israel’s favor. According to the terms, Syria will also agree to end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and will distance itself from Iran.
Wow. Brilliantly done. Unfortunately, when it came time to move the discussions to the next level, Israel balked. As Haaretz notes, the negotiations broke down because of “Israel’s refusal to hold talks on an official level – and a Syrian refusal to restrict the talks to an academic level.” In other words, Syria was ready to go forward with the agreement and negotiate at a high level, and the Israelis were not.
Now, most recently, we have a new push for peace. Or that’s at least how it looks. In the past few months, both the Syrians and the Israelis have made encouraging noises about their desire for a deal. Assad has said as much several times, as have other Syrian officials; Olmert and a number of top Israeli officials have indicated their willingness to negotiate as well. There have also been rumors that Turkey’s Erdogan government is acting as a third-party mediator to facilitate the resumption of talks.
But several factors have arisen that complicate this opportunity. First, both sides, probably in an effort to build up their “bargaining position,” have pre-empted any negotiations with overt military posturing. Israel is widely believed to have been the instigator of an aerial bombing against Syria last year in response to reports of the construction of a nuclear reactor. The Israeli Mossad is also thought to have been behind the recent assassination of Hezbollah’s top military operator, Imad Mughaniyeh, who was killed in Damascus. Meanwhile, the IDF has launched massive military drills in order to test their troops “preparedness.” Syria, for its part, has continued to build up Hezbollah and Hamas. They have also been engaged in “unusual troop movements” and have done some military drills of their own. None of this lays the groundwork for good-faith negotiations.
The second complicating factor is the Bush administration’s disinterest in a peace deal. The American policy has been to isolate – not engage – with Damascus. I have read some accounts which suggest that American officials have strongly discouraged the Israelis from talking with Damascus, or engaging in any long-term agreement with them. According to the view held by this administration, such a deal would undercut the prospects for a free and stable Lebanon and “legitimize” the Assad administration’s bad behavior. This may be the most significant issue blocking the resumption of peace talks. The third factor is also important, however. Israelis have said that they won’t talk with the Syrians unless a range of preconditions are met. Damascus would have to cut ties with Hezbollah, Iran, and Hamas in order for discussions to even begin. An outrageous request, for sure, equivalent to asking North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program before the six-party talks even got underway. The Syrians, not surprisingly, have said that they won’t give up their bargaining chips in exchange for nothing. They argue that talks should start with no preconditions. The Olmert administration has also kept open the possibility of secret talks, while the Syrians have demanded that they be made public.
These three factors – particularly the opposition of the Bush administration, on which Olmert’s government is so reliant – are likely to doom the possibility of any breakthrough in Israeli-Syrian relations…at least in the near future. What is encouraging, however, is that a strong framework for a future agreement does indeed exist. With a different American administration, and with a strong Israeli government, peace need not be far down the line.