Peace with Syria nixed by Israel?

Peace with Syria nixed by Israel?

M. J. Rosenberg gets only half of what went wrong with Israel’s foreign policy under Golda Meir in the early 1970s: not only did Golda miss an opportunity for peace with Egypt prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but perhaps even worse, she missed signing a peace treaty with Jordan in those years, because King Hussein wanted most of East Jerusalem back — while allowing some border adjustments (such as the Latrun Salient in Israel’s favor) and Israeli control over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. Without a war, Golda could have secured peace treaties with two powerful Arab neighbors and mostly solved the Palestinian issue to boot.

The buzz in the last week or so is that Prime Minister Olmert has nixed a deal with Syria, the fruit of two years of back channel discussions. This is not incontrovertibly proven fact, but it’s intriguing and also frustrating, if true.

When Uncritical Support leads to Disaster by M.J. Rosenberg January 19, 2007

Once upon a time the adage that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” seemed to apply to only one side of the Arab-Israeli divide: the Arab side.

After all, Israeli officials – at least in the first 20 years of Israel’s existence – were emphatic that Israeli representatives would go anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice, to negotiate without preconditions with any Arab government willing to talk with Israel.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol re-stated that principle immediately following the 1967 war, indicating that the lands captured in that war would be on the table if the Arabs would agree to talk. But the Arab League rejected Eshkol’s offer with the famous “three noes” — “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel….”

Talk about a missed opportunity. Eshkol viewed the West Bank, Gaza and the other occupied territories as valuable primarily because Israel could give them up in exchange for peace and security. Before the ’67 war, Israel had no surplus land to spare and hence nothing to offer the Arabs. Suddenly it did and Eshkol was willing. But the Arabs foolishly let the moment pass.

Israel’s major missed opportunity came in 1971. Up to that point, no Arab leader (except Jordan’s King Abdullah back in the 1940’s) had indicated a clear willingness to negotiate with Israel. But then, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s new President, announced that he was ready to negotiate with Israel. Furthermore, he did not link negotiations to Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territory.

Sadat was primarily interested in the formerly-Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and, particularly, in regaining the east bank of the Suez Canal so he could re-open the canal to international shipping. As for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and the Palestinian issue, that was for negotiating about later.

Israel took note of Sadat’s stated willingness to talk. Prime Minister Golda Meir acknowledged that Sadat was “the first Egyptian leader to say he was ready to make peace.” But she was not interested in negotiating with Sadat over Sinai, not in 1971. As Meir said later: “We never had it so good.” Israel had security and the territories. Who cared what Sadat offered or withheld?

So when Sadat said that in return for an Israeli pullback of 2-3 miles from the east bank of the canal he would begin negotiations toward a full peace, the Israeli government said “no.”

President Nixon pushed hard to get the Meir government to explore the offer, as did Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. But the majority of the Cabinet felt that Israel should reject the pressure and reject the peace offer too. The pro-Israel community in America backed Israel and told Nixon to butt out. The Prime Minister knew best, or so the thinking went.

It was at that point that Sadat decided that the only way he would regain his territory would be through war. He spent two years preparing an attack and then, on Yom Kippur 1973, the Egyptians crossed the canal, wiped out the Israeli defenders, and – with Syrian assistance — came close to defeating Israel itself.

The war cost Israel 3,000 young lives – all of whom would likely have been spared if Israel had taken up Egypt ‘s offer. In the end, Israel got peace with Egypt but at the price of surrendering not a mere 2-3 miles of the Sinai, but every last inch of it. And thousands of lost sons, fathers, and brothers. (It is worth noting that the pro-Israel community’s backing of Israel’s resistance to Nixon’s “pressure” contributed to the worst disaster in Israel’s history–a demonstration that unthinking and uncritical “support” is, in fact, anything but).

It is just possible that another colossal missed opportunity is in the making right now. According to the highly respected and well-connected Ha’aretz correspondent, Akiva Eldar, Israeli and Syrian representatives – meeting secretly over a two year period ending in July 2006 – agreed on the framework of a peace treaty.

According to Eldar, the plan provides for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Syria and Israel would be separated by a buffer zone in the form of a nature park, open to citizens of both countries.

Israel would retain exclusive control over the coveted waters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Demilitarized and reduced military presence zones, provisions for early warning stations and international security oversight, would be established. And, of critical importance, Syria would end its support for Hezbollah and distance itself from Iran. Likewise, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal would be forced to leave Damascus.

Once these mutual commitments are met, a full peace treaty would be signed and normal relations established.

The Eldar story sounds like a fantasy but it isn’t. We know it isn’t because key figures mentioned in Eldar’s piece – Americans, Israelis and Syrians – have confirmed that the meetings took place.

Most notably, Alon Liel, a former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Geoffrey Aronson, the American director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who facilitated the meetings, confirm that they happened. Liel told Ha’aretz that “Syria is serious about resuming peace talks with Israel and even proposed holding secret high-level talks during the war in Lebanon last summer, which Israel rejected. “

The most significant piece of evidence attesting to the significance of these meetings is that senior US officials say that Vice President Cheney was kept up-to-date about the meetings and indicated no opposition to them. This is critical because some Israelis claim that it is the Bush administration that is preventing Israel from responding to Syrian overtures. Apparently not in this case.

Perhaps, the Bush administration is moving away from its hard-line on dealing with Syria. Perhaps, taking a page from the Baker-Hamilton report, it is concluding that our disdain for the Assad regime should not prevent us from engaging Syria. Not if doing so will lead Syria to stop its trouble-making on the Iraq and Israeli borders and drive a wedge between Iran and Syria (not to mention Hamas and Hezbollah).

Unfortunately, the Israeli government responded to the Ha’aretz report with instant rejection which almost immediately produced a negative response in Damascus.

Obviously, Syria was not going to own up to negotiating with Israel if the Israeli government was in full rejection mode.

By why would it be? Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak all pursued the idea of trading the Golan for peace. And Ariel Sharon was aware of the talks that were going on at the time of his stroke and did nothing to halt them

Why not explore how far Damascus will go? The answer is, almost surely, politics.

A weak Olmert government may not feel it can pursue negotiations with Syria right now.

Nevertheless, Olmert should not hesitate to explore the Syrian option.

The possibility that Syria is ready for peace is too important to ignore.

Any peace feeler is worthy of exploration, especially one as promising as this.

By pursuing the Syrian track Israel could succeed in eliminating the threat from its most implacable neighbor. Peace with Syria would remove Iran’s entry point into Israel’s immediate neighborhood and halt its arms supply, virtually destroying Hezbollah. And Hamas would be almost totally isolated.

Anyone who believes this is not a gamble worth considering simply does not understand what the stakes for America and Israel really are.

But wait. There’s good news. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is, according to media reports, ready to make a major push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with a view toward reaching an agreement by the time President Bush leaves office. That explains why the Vice President has, apparently, encouraged the unofficial Israeli-Syrian talks (or, at least, not opposed them).

Bush, Cheney and Rice may understand that success in Iraq looks increasingly unlikely and that, by comparison, achieving a final status Israel-Palestinian agreement would be relatively easy. It’s legacy time. The Bush administration should go for it.

As for the pro-Israel community and the Congress, it should recall the lesson of 1971. Supporting Israel by supporting the status quo is no support at all. Just visit the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and imagine it without the 3000 graves of soldiers who died heroically in an utterly preventable war.

The views expressed in IPF Friday are those of MJ Rosenberg and not necessarily of Israel Policy Forum. If you have colleagues or friends who would appreciate receiving this weekly letter, or you would like to unsubscribe, send an e-mail to:

By | 2007-01-22T05:13:00-05:00 January 22nd, 2007|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Anonymous January 27, 2007 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    I have often marveled at the turn of the phrase, “A strong Israel.” Where this means an Israel that is irredentist and caters to every hard right whim, or insecurity, then Zionists around the world are the lesser for it. Apparently being for “A Strong Israel” led to the Sinai disaster and is now preventing the Israelis from shutting down Hamas by consumating a peace with Syria. It seems that the flexibility of Jewish diplomatic efforts that led to the creastion of the State are no longer being employed

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