Posted by Joshua on Monday, July 14th, 2008
Here are excerpts from a significant position paper written by a group of academics, diplomats, and politicos, among them Robert Malley, Ambassador Edward Walker, and Thomas Dine (former executive director of AIPAC).
For nearly 60 years the United States has tried to encourage peace and reconciliation between Israel and all of its neighbors. Only recently have there emerged new policy priorities—the “global war on terrorism,” the invasion and occupation of Iraq and support for Lebanese independence—that have complicated a commitment deeply rooted in American national interests. While the Bush administration hopes to bequeath to its successor serious progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track of the peace process, it has signaled no such ambition with respect to the Israeli-Syrian track.
Indeed, the announcement of Turkish-mediated Israeli-Syrian peace talks was greeted with less than enthusiasm by the Bush administration. “That Israel has been able to open somesort of indirect conversation about these matters with the Syrian government, with thegood offices of Turkey, is a good thing,” said Assistant Secretary of State David Welch. “I mean, I’m not saying it’s not. And we hope it prospers. But where we’re making the major investment right now is on the Palestinian track.”
The Israeli-Palestinian track is indeed the “main event” of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Moreover, Syria has presented problems for Washington with respect to Iraq (both before and after the 2003 invasion) and more recently in Lebanon. Indeed, Syria and its Lebanese allies (led by Hezbollah) have thoroughly frustrated the emergence of a pro-American Lebanon; something President Bush had hailed as a dividend of regime change in Iraq. The administration sees the Syrian regime as murderous and duplicitous; as a state sponsor of terrorism, an ally of Iran, a conduit for foreign fighters to Iraq, and an enemy of Lebanese democracy and independence.
The Israeli view of the Assad regime differs little in substance from Washington’s, and President Bush was applauded in the Knesset when he declared, “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.” Still, Israel cannot afford to operate in accordance with the view that diplomacy aims for conversion and repentance.
- Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have produced little in the way of warmth and nothing in the way of apologies for past behavior, but they have gone far toenhance Israel’s national security.
- Likewise, no serious Israeli expects Palestinians to insert the phrase, “We were wrong all along” into a treaty of peace setting the terms for a sustainable two-state solution.
- Just as the United States seeks common ground with a regime in Pyongyang easily as noxious as any on earth, so Israel is exploring the possibility of peace with a country that has, at times, been the bitterest of its enemies.
From Israel’s perspective the potential benefits of peace with Syria are great:
Syria would no longer provide support for armed action by Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups against Israel;
- A treaty with Syria would clear the way for formal peace with Lebanon;
- A treaty with Syria would mean the end of arms shipments to Hezbollah;
- Comprehensive peace on all tracks would trigger normalization with the entire Arab world in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative; and
- Iran’s posture in the Arab-Israeli arena would be weakened and Syria’s relationship with Iran would be stripped of its anti-Israeli content.
Iran’s overt hostility toward Israel and Syria’s close relationship with Tehran makes the
current round much more than a technical discussion of how to reconcile Syria’s desire for a specific boundary with Israel’s security, water, and normalization concerns.
- Unless Iran itself enters into a détente with the United States, Israel, and the West in general, it will not be possible for Syria to be at peace with Israelunless the Damascus-Tehran relationship undergoes a fundamental change.
- In the 1970s Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union changed fundamentally. Yet while Anwar Sadat had somewhere to go—the United States—President Bashar Al Assad faces the road to Washington blocked by harsh words and economic sanctions: obstacles largely of his own making.
- Sadat—the unchallenged ruler of a legitimate government—was himself not inclined to dive blindfolded into a potentially empty pool when he dismissedthe Soviets. Assad—who rules a markedly weaker state than Egypt—will want someplace safe to land if he has to break from the embrace of an Iran still hostile toward Israel. That someplace would be the United States.
As a practical matter, therefore, the question of what to do about Israeli-Syrian peace talks may well fall squarely on whoever occupies the Oval Office on the afternoon of January20, 2009. We think the following factors are worth considering:
- As Iraq shows signs of gradually stabilizing, American-Syrian talks might yield agreements producing substantial benefits for the government in Baghdad while helping to relieve Syria of the enormous Iraqi refugee burden it is carrying.
- If there is a degree of genuineness in this Turkish-Syrian-Israeli initiative, the parties can conduct their respective “due diligence” processes and tackle some technical negotiating details without American assistance between now and early 2009…
- Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the Assad regime, a new American president—Republican or Democrat—will not automatically sign up to the proposition that the United States should dive into Israeli-Syrian talks forthwith and approach the bilateral relationship with Damascus with a blank slate. Iraq and Lebanon will be inherited issues. If Syria wants a positive relationship with
Washington, cooperation over Iraq and an accommodation over Lebanon are essential. The new administration would do well to define what it wants, when it wants it, and what it is prepared to give in return. In short, tough-minded and disciplined diplomacy should come back into vogue—it is a tool of American power that no American commander-in-chief should be reluctant to use.
- If Damascus proves unwilling to be helpful with Iraq and determined to restore its suzerainty over Lebanon, it will be difficult for any American administration to obtain the requisite domestic political support to play an active role in helping Syria, through facilitation and mediation, recover the lands it lost to Israel in 1967.
- The dilemma for which Damascus holds an important key is that notwithstanding its bad relationship with Washington, a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is essential to American national security interests. As the United States tries to rebuild its image, influence, and prestige in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the quality of its efforts to bring about a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors will be of transcendent importance. While no American need ever apologize for the special relationship between the United States and Israel and while no one need ever doubt the depth and permanency of America’s commitment to Israel’s security, it is important that the United States be seen as striving for peace and justice in the Arab-Israeli context. Without sacrificing any legitimate national security interest, Syria—if it wants a good relationship with Washington and if it wants a vital American role in its discussions with Israel—can help make it possible for the next president (and even this one) to pursue a peace whose achievement would disappoint only Osama bin Laden, his disciples, like-minded extremists, and Iran.
Therefore, success of the Turkey mediated Israeli-Syrian talks would promote vital US interests in the region. If the current US administration is not prepared to facilitate and join them, we urge the next president to do so as soon as possible after he takes office.
– July 7, 2008
Marshall Breger, Nathan Brown, Thomas A. Dine, Frederic C. Hof, Scott Lasensky, Ambassador Samuel Lewis, Robert Malley, Ambassador Robert Pelletreau, Steven L. Spiegel, Ambassador Edward S. Walker.