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Should Israel Initiate Negotiations with Syria?

INSS Policy Brief – Editor Shlomo Brom
No. 2 January 14, 2007

Should Israel Initiate Negotiations with Syria?

Amos Gilboa

The objective of this paper is to analyze the major considerations in answer to the basic question: Should Israel initiate negotiations with Syria on a political accord?

Current situation, main issues
The negotiations between Israel and Syria on a political settlement that lasted throughout the last decade of the previous century came to a halt on March 26, 2000 with the failed meeting between Presidents Clinton and Hafez al-Asad. Since then, considerable changes have occurred in the strategic map, impacting on the current and future situations in Israel-Syria relations. They have occurred in Syria, in Israel, in the region, and around the world.

Over time and against the backdrop of these changes (the most significant of which is, for the purpose of this analysis, the rise of Iran as a major dominant factor in the region), and primarily after the second Lebanon War, Bashar al-Asad and his political advisers have issued a series of intensive, recurring public statements calling upon Israel to begin negotiations with Syria on a peace accord. These calls have been accompanied by threats that should Israel not respond to Syria’s call for peace, Syria would have no choice but to resort to various violent means.

These moves by Syria raise four major sets of questions:

• Does Israel currently have a primary interest in achieving an accord with Syria? Would such an accord provide an answer to Israel’s major security issues in the present? Is it urgent and critical?
• Is it possible, under present circumstances, to achieve a peace accord as Israel would wish? Would the Asad regime be willing and able to pay the price required of it (namely, the components of a peace agreement with Israel and the nature of Syria’s regional policy, primarily the dissolution of its alliance with Iran, and its renunciation of both terrorism and its interest in Lebanon)?
• Furthermore: What are the implications of initiating peace negotiations for the Palestinian issue and for Iraq?
• What might happen if Israel does not embark on such negotiations? And what might happen if negotiations are initiated, only to fail?

Does Israel currently have a primary interest in achieving an accord?

One school of thought responds in the affirmative, based on the following reasoning:
• Time is not on Israel’s side; a political vacuum exists that may explode, due to destructive initiatives or to other unexpected events.
• Syria wishes to disentangle itself from the Iranian “bear hug” before it is too late, and aspires for international legitimacy. It is in our interest to assist it to do so, and soon. Hizbollah is on its way to controlling Lebanon, and it must be stopped.
• Israel cannot, morally and tactically, refuse any offers of peace negotiations.

Another school of thought concurs that Israel may not ignore Bashar’s calls and be seen as the one turning down Arab calls for peace, but contends that entering into negotiations with Syria is neither urgent nor critical, and may even be harmful for the following reasons:

• First, there is currently no critical mass of factors, international or regional, pressuring or even encouraging Israel to embark on negotiations with Syria. There is pressure to progress on the Palestinian track, pressure exerted mainly by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt – who feel threatened by Iran. Embarking on negotiations with Syria is, therefore, out of context in regional terms.
• Second, the basic Israeli interest is to promote the political stability of our neighbors (Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon). Negotiating with Syria at this point in time contradicts this interest, since Syria is occupied at present with dissolving the system in Lebanon and we have no desire to help Syria in so doing.
• Third, this would severely damage our relations with the US.
• Fourth, the so-called Iranian “bear hug” meets with full Syrian consent.
• And, politically speaking, public opinion in Israel does not rule out negotiations with Syria, but concurrently and consistently over time (and as in a recent survey of October 2006), the great majority of the public objects to handing over any portion of the Golan Heights in return for a peace accord with Syria.

Is it possible to achieve a peace accord as Israel would wish?

Those who oppose embarking on negotiations believe that:
• Contrary to past negotiations with Syria (when the Syrian army was stationed in Lebanon) where an accord with Syria would have led to a stable accord with Lebanon as well and to the disarming of Hizbollah, nowadays an accord with Syria would not solve the issue of Lebanon. Hizbollah, under Iran’s influence, would remain the major armed force. This detracts considerably from the benefits of an accord.
• In addition, there is no real evidence or even indications that in exchange for the Golan Heights (or possibly a “piece of paper” that would return the Golan Heights to Syria in several years time) Syria would disengage from its ally Iran, despite the natural mistrust between these two countries. These relations have lasted for many years; they are “deep” and based on strategic interests and shared ideology (with “the resistance” at its core). Why should Syria abandon an ally that is a rising force? And this rising force will likely be a nuclear one in the future, and an Israel-Syria accord would have no influence over that!
• Therefore, Bashar is probably uninterested in and unable to deliver the “strategic goods” Israel expects of him, and it is extremely doubtful whether he is able to provide Israel with a comprehensive peace agreement and open up significantly to the West (as did President Sadat). The underlying reason for this is the closed autocratic structure of the Syrian regime, based on the minority Alawi sect and those attached to it, which may seal its own fate by making significant changes to its domestic, economic, and foreign policy. They have no wish to “bring the flies into the room,” as Hafez al-Asad once said.
• Bashar’s interest, which is less in an accord with Israel than in the process itself that would officially lend credence to ending Syria’s pariah status, would render him immune from various pressures, including pressure to leave Lebanon alone, and would provide him with means to avoid the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s murder.

Counterarguments by those in favor include:
• Bashar honestly wants peace with Israel, is ready for it, and is confident after six years in power. He is not constrained as his father was (guilt over losing the Golan Heights, the issue of succession during negotiations with Barak). An accord with Syria is relatively easy to achieve. Most issues have been agreed in the past “on paper” (such as normalization, security arrangements) and the price is well known and has been mentioned by three or more prime ministers: withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights, almost to within an inch of the June 4, 1967 line.
• Syria may not be able to disengage from Iran quickly and comprehensively, but its ties with Iran would be restricted; Hizbollah may not be disarmed, but Syria could halt arms flow to the organization, thereby weakening it and helping stabilize the political situation in Lebanon. Overall, the friction between Israel and Iran would be reduced, and this is important in approaching the situation where Iran would become a nuclear power.
• Syria would renounce terrorism. It would do so, among other reasons, because its shaky economy requires assistance and investments from the West.

Implications of initiating negotiations for the Palestinian issue and for Iraq

As for the Palestinians: on the one hand there are those of the opinion that Abu Mazen’s faction is actually interested in Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which would help in energizing the Palestinian track to reach an accord; on the other hand, one may assume that Hamas and extremist Palestinian organizations would perceive this as evidence that Israel gives in to Bashar, and is willing to give him that which it had not been willing to give prior to the second Lebanon War – hence the Syrian method of terrorism has been successful. Therefore we may see an extensive renewal of terrorism, including by the global jihad, massively aided by Iran.

In any case, it is hard to envision the Israeli government (against a backdrop of public argument and unrest) concurrently tackling two tracks and reaching accords that entail a costly price.

Iraq. The Syrians have no real influence on what is happening inside Iraq and on shaping its future. The issue of the Syria-Iraq border is outside the scope of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. The key question, which is hard to answer at this stage, is how would Syria be affected by the new situation in Iraq after the Americans leave? Would that bolster a possible Israel-Syria accord, or would it cause its failure?

What might happen if Israel does not embark on negotiations?

Some claim that Syria, impressed with Hizbollah’s achievements, would in such a case launch a war, primarily by launching rockets at the civilian front, and we would then be left with no choice but to enter into negotiations with Syria. Therefore, why not enter into negotiations now, and avoid the war and its casualties? At this time there is no information to support this theory, and it would seem that it is more of a scare tactic intended to convince Israel to enter into negotiations rapidly. Asad is aware of Israel’s military superiority and of the danger facing his regime should he launch a (limited or all-out) war against Israel – and therefore he would not launch military operations against Israel. Of course, that does not mean that Syria’s army would not prepare for scenarios of escalation initiated by Israel.

Nevertheless, one must take into consideration the risk that at some point in time (according to strategic developments in the region), Syria would gradually start initiating terrorist operations from the Golan Heights that carry its signature, faint as it may be.

And if negotiations are started and then fail, would we see deterioration and a Syrian-initiated war (similar to the intifada following the failure of Camp David)? There were many rounds of negotiations between Israel and Syria over the previous decade, and their failure did not lead to acts of hostility. It is reasonable to expect that this would be the case here as well, depending, of course, on the prevailing regional circumstances at the time. In principle, it would seem that the major impacting factor in such cases is the perception of overall military force ratios, and not one diplomatic failure or another during negotiations.

“What to do”: conclusions and outline of a general program

In view of the above considerations, it would seem that Israel, under current circumstances, need not enter into peace negotiations with Syria.

What circumstances would change this assessment? If, for example, there would be signs that Bashar’s regime is ready to start a process of real change in its domestic and foreign policy à la Sadat – change resulting from internal Syrian conviction that this is the best path for the Syrian state; if there would be real Syrian moves to disengage from terror and its proponents; if there is a dramatic move in Lebanon; a drastic change in US policy; or changes to the status of Iran and its links with Syria; and perhaps if there would be dramatic Syrian overtures that are hard to envision today!

Thos does not mean, of course, that we should sit idly in the meantime. First, it is advisable not to be seen as repeat offenders in rejecting peace. There is no reason not to promote covert communication channels, semi-affiliated with intelligence (but with the knowledge of the US), either direct or indirect, with the Syrians in order to keep in contact, to get an impression with no obligation. This could simmer on a back burner, without its necessary evolution into a binding process of communication, and certainly not a public one. Negotiations and communication have their own dynamics. If it turns out that talks with the Syrians are worthwhile and contacts develop in a positive direction, it may be possible to change Israel’s policy and move to more serious negotiations. Another possible way is to try and expose Bashar via public statements by the prime minister that have invited Bashar to come to Jerusalem and bring the remains of Eli Cohen. Bashar’s reaction would be, most likely, a rejection and a statement that he would meet the prime minister only when the accord is to be signed. Other tactics abound in this domain. Furthermore, it is possible to propose to the Syrians, via the UN force in the Golan Heights, reciprocal moves to reduce tensions and avoid miscalculation. For example, we would notify them of major military drills in the Golan Heights, and would expect them to respond in kind.

Second, a policy of deterrence versus Syria should be formulated, including in case of “minor” Syrian moves, such as terrorist activity from the Golan Heights. Any terrorism in the Golan Heights would seriously impact on tourism and development in the Golan Heights. The motto should be (accompanied, of course, by military readiness and priority assigned to intelligence: any minor act of violence originating from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights would mean a declaration of war on Israel.

At the higher level, Israel should embark on a strategic dialogue with the US on containing the Syrian-Iranian threat (the starting position is that Syria would not turn to meaningful aggressive moves unless its working assumption is that it has Iranian backup). The stance towards the Americans might be: currently you tell us not to “talk” to Syria (unless you have any other ideas?!) But Bashar is threatening war. Therefore, let us formulate a regional policy of containment and deterrence, possibly with other partners.

Third, in any case we should formulate right now (as “plan B”) our position on a possible future accord between Israel and the Syrians. Its starting position (unlike in the 1990s) is that any accord must consist of two layers: the direct bilateral layer between us and Syria (the peace layer), and the regional, strategic layer, which should serve the strategic objective of confronting Iran’s rising power. At the strategic layer, the framework for handling it is outside of Israel’s hands. The US manages the framework, and we should conduct a dialogue with the US on this issue.

Fourth, as for the direct bilateral relations between us and Syria, the starting position must be fundamentally different from the one adopted as a result of the "Rabin pledge" of 1993, reflecting a new attitude incorporating all the significant changes that have occurred in the region. Its major points:

• Israel does not have sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Syria does.
• However, the era of “Israel knows the price it has to pay” is over. There is no more “pledge” and no more “the June 4 border.” The price is not known! It will be a result of a compromise and the price Syria is willing to pay.
• The model for peace is Jordan.
• Very long time frames (far beyond a few years) for realizing the accord, due to the long time required to implement changes at the strategic layer. In this context, turn the lease idea into an Israeli position.
• Review and refine all the ideas on turning the Golan Heights into a global hi-tech park; a global winery center; creation of international ski resorts (à la “the three Hermons” – Israeli, Syrian, and Lebanese), and other similar ideas.


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