A diplomatic opportunity may be at hand: An analysis by Robert O. Freedman
One of the most volatile issues in Israeli politics today is the question as to whether Israel should respond positively to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s offer to begin peace negotiations. While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert currently opposes such talks, his senior partner in the governing coalition, Labor party chair Amir Peretz, strongly endorses them. While the rhetoric on this question has been heated, in part because of the recently released report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which advocates both US-Syrian talks and Israeli-Syrian talks leading to the return of the Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement, what has been lacking is an evaluation of the costs and benefits for Israel in entering into talks with Syria, and that will be the subject of this essay.
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert makes two major arguments against negotiations with Syria. First, he emphasizes the need to cooperate with the Bush Administration which, in seeking to keep Syria diplomatically isolated, opposes such talks. Given the strong support given to Israel by the Bush Administration, Olmert does not want a confrontation with the US on an issue for which he would not have a great deal of domestic support. Indeed, the majority of Israelis, unhappy with the results of the unilateral pullouts from Lebanon and Gaza which, instead of bringing peace, only brought more war, oppose any pullout from the Golan Heights. While this could change, especially if Syrian President Bashar Assad made a Sadat-like gesture by visiting Jerusalem for talks with the Israeli government, for the time being, most Israelis oppose withdrawing from the Golan.
The second argument against talks with Syria made by Olmert is that so long as Syria supports Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations dedicated to the destruction of Israel, there is no purpose in talking with Syria.
By contrast, those advocating talks with Syria make five points:
1. Peace talks with Syria, if successful, would end the threat of war with Syria, the most powerful Arab state not yet to have made peace with Israel.
2. If Israel launches a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities – an increasingly likely possibility – Syria (and Hezbollah) would be less likely to join the conflict on Iran’s side if Syrian-Israeli peace talks are underway.
3. A peace treaty with Syria, or even negotiations with it, would put Israel in a stronger bargaining position with the Palestinians if Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resume.
4. Israeli-Syrian peace talks, if successful, would weaken the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon, because Syria is the major arms supplier to Hezbollah, as well as the transit point for Iranian arms going to Hezbollah.
5. A Syrian-Israeli peace agreement has the possibility of splitting Syria from its alliance with Iran.
In evaluating these arguments about Israel starting peace talks with Syria, there are four major considerations to keep in mind. First, while it is, of course, important for Israel to cooperate as closely as possible with the US, when it comes to the possibility of peace with Syria, Israel’s existential needs should take precedence. Testing the regime of Bashar Assad, if done discreetly, should not unduly upset US-Israeli relations, especially since US attempts to isolate the Assad regime appear to have failed. In addition to the recommendations of the ISG for US-Syrian and Israeli-Syrian talks, there are a steady stream of European diplomats visiting Damascus, and American Congressmen, most recently Senators Chris Dodd and John Kerry, have also visited the Syrian capital for talks with Assad.
Second, Olmert’s assertion that Israel can’t talk to Syria so long as Damascus supports Hamas and Hezbollah also needs scrutiny. If the goal of Israeli diplomacy is to end Syrian support for the two anti-Israeli organizations, such an outcome could be expected at the end of negotiations, not at the beginning, as part of the price Syria would have to pay for the return of the Golan Heights. That is, after all, what diplomatic negotiations are all about.
Third, testing Assad’s repeated calls for talks with Israel is good diplomatic strategy. If Bashar Assad is serious about negotiations, and is willing, in addition to ending support for Hamas and Hezbollah, to make major security and water concessions on the Golan Heights, then a peace agreement with Syria would be beneficial for Israel. These concessions could include, for example, demilitarizing the area, having it policed by a multinational force which could not be ousted (unlike the UN force in the Sinai before the 1967 war), along with an agreement not to interfere with the water flowing into the Sea of Galilee from the Golan. If Assad proves not to be serious about negotiations, then not only would Israel have lost nothing, but is also would have gained diplomatic points within Europe where significant sectors of public opinion do not believe that Israel is sincere about desiring peace.
Finally, the most challenging question in considering the possible benefits of talking with Syria is whether this could lead to a rupture in the Syrian-Iranian alliance. It should be remembered that Syrian-Iranian relations go back many years, as Syria was one of the few Arab backers of Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. However, the close alignment between the two countries only took place in the last few years as Syria became increasingly isolated after its suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and the US brought escalating pressure on Syria because of its alleged support for the Iraqi insurgency.
One must ask, however, how natural is the Syrian-Iranian alignment? The Syrian Baathist regime is secular, while the Iranian regime is theocratic. Secondly, Iran is Persian and is now exerting increasing pressure on the Arab world, of which Syria is a part. On the other hand, the minority elite ruling Syria is Shia [Shiite] (the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni) and may be seen to get some religious legitimization from Iran; still, the Syrian Shia are Alawi [Alawite], who follow the 11th Imam while the Iranians are twelvers, who follow the 12th Imam.
Both Iran and Syria support Hezbollah, as was evident during last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war. They do so, however, for different reasons. For Iran, Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia force tied to Iran religiously, which shares Tehran’s goal of destroying Israel. For Syria, which since its cease-fire agreement regarding the Golan Heights in 1974 has not called for Israel’s destruction, Hezbollah is a tool in its conflict with Israel and a
means of maintaining influence in Lebanon.
It appears to be possible for Israel to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran by negotiating with Syria. Given the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran, an effort to separate Syria from Iran makes good diplomatic and strategic sense.
In sum, a close examination of the arguments suggests that it is indeed in Israel’s interest to take up Syria’s offer of negotiations. Whether such negotiations would be successful, however, remains an open question.
Dr. ROBERT O. FREEDMAN is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University and is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His books include “Israel in the Begin Era,” “Israel under Rabin,” and “Israel’s First Fifty Years.” He is also an executive board member of Meretz USA.