Letter from Jerusalem: Turning Syria
Diplomacy between Israel and Syria has stalled for 33 years. Will renewed efforts leaked to the public but still unofficial—lead to a formal peace?
The names themselves have the musty scent of yellowing papers: The last time Syria and Israel successfully negotiated a step toward peace, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conducted the talks, flying back and forth between Israel and Damascus for a month straight to get to yes. Richard Nixon was nominally president of the United States, but Dr. K was really flying solo; his wildly unpopular boss was about to lose his job. Reaching the pact was Golda Meir’s final act as prime minister. The young Hafez al-Assad, on the other hand, was just at the start of his marathon career as dictator of Syria.
It has been a long time since the Syrian-Israeli separation-of-forces agreement was signed in May 1974. The accord ended the war of attrition that followed the Yom Kippur War. The frontier between the two countries has stayed quiet ever since—but the risk of a new war has remained. And Damascus has always found proxies willing to fight Israel. While a similar disengagement pact with Egypt was the first step toward full peace, diplomacy between Israel and Syria has stalled for 33 years.
That’s not for lack of trying. during the optimistic years that brought the Oslo Accords and peace with Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin openly held negotiations with Syria. Rabin’s assassination broke the momentum. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his hard-line stance in public, reportedly set up his own top-secret channel to Hafez al-Assad, using American Jewish businessman Ronald S. Lauder as a go-between. After Netanyahu, Ehud Barak made a final lunge at an agreement, but talks broke down in March 2000.
Now, talking peace with Syria is back on the Israeli agenda—perhaps only on its edge, like a fly irritatingly buzzing at the corners of a room, but definitely back.
One reason is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—the young, hereditary monarch of the republic—keeps talking about his desire to resume talks, sometimes adding ominously that the alternative is war. Another reason is the leak early this year to Ha’aretz that unofficial Israeli and Syrian negotiators, meeting under Swiss auspices, had come up with a draft of a peace agreement. After the leak, both governments publicly dissociated themselves from the draft. The cold response from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office prompted the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to invite Ibrahim Suleiman, the Syrian-American businessman who had represented Damascus in the talks, to appear before it.
By July, Olmert had switched messages, using the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station to urge Assad publicly to begin negotiations. That followed leaks that Olmert had sent secret messages to Assad that he was ready to “pay the price of peace”—code words for returning the Golan Heights—and had received an answer via an intermediary that Syria was ready to dicker. At the minimum, Olmert had decided that ignoring Assad looked impolitic. At the most, the two sides were again using go-betweens to explore whether they had a chance at reaching an agreement.
That did not stop the military “nervousness” on both sides, as ex-Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel termed it: Israeli Army exercises in the Golan, Syria acquiring missiles from Iran.
“I believe that on the political level neither side wants war,” Liel noted. “But there are enough other parties in the region that could create provocations. Or even an accident could be misunderstood. Things can definitely slide downhill.”
The conflicting reports raise several questions: What is Bashar al-Assad really up to? What are the risks for Israel of making a deal—or avoiding one? And if both sides do want an agreement, what is keeping them from returning to the table? In terms of territory, Syria’s goal has never changed. Like his father, Bashar al-Assad wants to get back the Golan Heights, conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War. In previous talks, Syria has insisted on returning to the prewar line of June 4, 1967. That line is not quite the same as the international border originally marked between Syria and mandatory Palestine. Before 1967, Syria held small but critical bits of land beyond the international border, including the northeastern shore of Lake Kinneret. Going back to the June 4th line means Israel might lose full control of critical water resources. Even if it agreed to cede the Golan, Israel would prefer the international border. The talks in 2000 broke down on this point, knowledgeable sources said.
Or perhaps Assad’s only aim is talking, not reaching an agreement. After Suleiman appeared in the Knesset, a spokesman for Olmert said, “The Syrian government is not pursuing peace but is merely posturing.” The implication was that Assad sought the appearance of negotiations to reduce his international isolation. He would be able to continue his alliance with Iran, his backing for Hamas and Hezbollah, his meddling in Lebanon, but get off America’s blacklist.
Liel takes a very different view. He was the Israeli who negotiated with Suleiman. “Syria is ready to switch orientation,” to align itself with the West, Liel said in a briefing after their draft accord was leaked. “It’s clear to Syria that it won’t get the Golan unless it leaves the axis of evil.” In other words, Assad does seek to end his isolation—but by reaching an agreement in which he would change sides on the global stage, breaking his ties with Iran and Hezbollah and realigning with the West. It would be a repeat of Egypt’s switch from the Soviet to the Western side as part of the peace process in the 1970s.
The risks and benefits of trading the Golan Heights for peace have been debated for years. Opponents regard the Golan as a better guarantee of Israeli security than any peace deal. Besides the security argument, many on the Israeli right regard the Golan as part of the historical Land of Israel and reject ceding any part of that patrimony.
In 1981, the Knesset applied Israeli law to the Golan, effectively annexing it. Over 16,000 Israeli settlers live in the region. The prospect of pulling out is not popular.
On the other hand, said Uri Sagie, a former head of Military Intelligence who was in charge of talks with Syria under Barak, “You make peace with those with whom you have a dispute.” Israel’s accords with Egypt and Jordan, said the ex-general, “are far better than a situation of fighting or military tension.” Israel has made clear in previous talks with Syria that the price for a pullout includes extensive security arrangements, such as demilitarized zones—a parallel to the peace with Egypt.
And the status quo has its own price. Besides the risk of war, Syria has found ways to bleed Israel via its proxies. The leadership of Hamas has its headquarters in Damascus. Syria backs Hezbollah in Lebanon, and arms continue to flow across the Syrian-Lebanese border to the Shi’ites who fought Israel last year. Looking forward, Assad’s support for Hezbollah raises the potential risks of an American or Israeli military confrontation with Iran. The Shi’ite organization could attack Israel again with arms that arrived via Syria.
In the unofficial negotiations, said Liel, “the Israeli and European participants weren’t naïve. We told Syria, ‘We don’t believe you, you are terrorists. We need a time span to see if you change orientation.’” As a result, the draft agreement said that the Israeli withdrawal will be implemented in a “time frame to be mutually agreed.” The Syrians suggested five years; the Israelis proposed fifteen.
Other pieces of the draft specified that Israel would acknowledge Syrian sovereignty in the Golan, based on the June 4, 1967, lines, but Israel would retain full control of the Kinneret and the Jordan River. As a buffer zone to keep Syria from using the Kinneret water, at least part of the Golan would become a park, administered by Syria but with visa-free access from Israel.
In Liel’s description, there was asymmetry in the negotiations he conducted. While he did report to top Israeli officials, he made clear to Suleiman that he represented only himself. Suleiman’s reply was, “I represent the Syrian government.” Swiss representatives who visited Damascus heard from top officials, “Ibrahim Suleiman is our guy.” Despite the official denials, therefore, the draft agreement gives an indication of what Syria might accept. The talks broke down last year when Syria demanded to switch to meetings between officials and Israel demurred. Liel said he was told several times by Israeli officials that “the Americans don’t want us to do it.”
On the surface, Olmert can expect little political gain from a new diplomatic effort. A Peace Index poll in June showed 63 percent of Israelis opposed trading the whole Golan for full peace; only 20 percent were in favor. The key reason, suggested the pollsters, is “the near-unanimous [85 percent] assessment” that Syria would not end its support for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. So the content of an agreement could have major impact on public support. So could a dramatic gesture, similar to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, which transformed the public mood in Israel.
And Olmert’s own unpopularity might push him to try the Syrian track. Since the war last year, he has dropped his signature plan of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and has lacked a clear foreign policy. Seeking a deal with Damascus could not make him more disliked on the right, and an achievement might help him on the left.
The major sticking point, experts say, is lack of interest from the Bush administration. “The U.S. has a dichotomic approach, black and white,” said Sagie, regarding Syria as “the bad guys.” He stressed that Syria has done its level best to earn its terrible reputation. But for policymakers, “the big question is whether you get angry or try to reach an agreement,” he added.
For a peace process to succeed, “The United States would have to invest in it,” Sagie said. That view, common among veteran diplomats, is based partly on past experience, including Kissinger’s shuttling. Beyond that, said Liel, the Syrians say that the moment they start public talks with Israel, “Iran will cut its ties with us.… We need an alternative, a new regional alignment.” For that, America must be involved.
At the start, American involvement might be quiet, but it would need to be strong. But such involvement will apparently wait for a reassessment in Washington, or a changing of the guard. The Syrian question, it seems, will continue to flit at the edges of Israeli policy until someone from Washington again begins flying regularly to Damascus.