Posted by Joshua on Friday, May 2nd, 2008
No one seems particularly optimistic about Olmert's recent announcement that Israel is back in the peace negotiating business. The distrust between Syria and Israel will be very hard to overcome. Most people believe that Syrian-Israeli dialogue is more a sign of cunning maneuver than a real turn away from Bush administration strategy, which has been about forcing Syria to change regime behavior.
What are the Prospects for Syrian-Israeli Peace?
by Patrick Seale: 2 May 2008
The only faintly hopeful aspect of the current frost between Syria and Israel is that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems determined to bring the two countries to the negotiating table. Turkey has emerged over the past year as the principal, indeed the only serious, broker between these bitter enemies.
Erdogan has recently been in Damascus for talks with President Bashar al-Asad and is planning to send an emissary to Israel to brief Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the outcome of his discussions. His Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has confirmed that messages between Syria and Israel have been exchanged through Turkey over the past year, and that this traffic ‘has intensified in the past few months.’ Turkey’s immediate aim would seem to be to get low-level talks started as a prelude to bringing the leaders of Syria and Israel together.
The U.S., in contrast, has openly opposed Israeli contacts with Syria, and has sought instead to sanction and isolate Damascus, accusing it of interfering in both Lebanon and Iraq against American interests.
In spite of this negative American attitude, Syrian officials continue to believe that only the United States can bring talks with Israel to a successful conclusion. This may be because they are aware that only the U.S. can give Israel the reassurance, and possibly even the guarantees, it may need to agree to a Golan withdrawal.
Since Damascus has no confidence in the Bush administration — responsible, in its view, for the greatest disasters in the region – it awaits the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential elections in the hope that the next American president will take Middle East peace-making seriously, and broker a deal.
President Bashar al-Asad’s position remains the well-known position of his father, the late President Hafiz al-Asad, namely that Israel must endorse the ‘land-for-peace’ formula for talks to have a chance of success. In other words, Israel must commit itself to full withdrawal from the Golan to the 4 June 1967 border.
In 1993, and again in 1994, the former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin pledged to the Americans that he would carry out a full withdrawal from the Golan in the context of a peace agreement with Syria. When Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic in November 1995, Shimon Peres, on taking over as prime minister, repeated the pledge. But Benjamin Netanyahu, premier from 1996 to 1999, and then Ehud Barak, in 1999-2000, both refused to do so.
Syria now wants Olmert to demonstrate the same will for peace as Rabin. The Syrian view is that once Israel promises to return the territory, all other contentious issues can be put ‘on the table,’ including whatever legitimate security concerns Israel may have.
Against this background, something of a stir was caused last week when the Syrian media announced that Erdogan had phoned Asad to say that Olmert had told him that he was prepared to return the Golan to Syria. Was this, Damascus speculated, the long-awaited breakthrough?
Israeli spokesmen would not, however, confirm the report beyond saying that Israel was ‘well aware of the price it would have to pay at the end of the talks’ – an ambiguous formula which fell short of what the Syrians would have liked to hear.
Meanwhile, Olmert’s apparent readiness to return the Golan aroused a storm of protest in Israel. Likud chairman Netanyahu denounced Olmert’s ‘suicidal concession’, while David Tal, head of the Knesset’s House Committee, said that he hoped to pass a bill requiring any Golan withdrawal to be submitted to a national referendum.
This was not good news since the latest Israeli poll, published in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, showed that only 32 per cent of the Israeli public approved a full withdrawal from the Golan. It was clear that Israeli public opinion would have to be won over for a deal with Syria to become possible.
In public pronouncements, both President Asad and Prime Minister Olmert have said that they want peace. Asad told former U.S.President Jimmy Carter, on the latter’s recent visit to the Middle East, that 85 per cent of the issues between Israel and Syria had been resolved in the 1990s, and that he was anxious to conclude peace as soon as possible. Syria wants peace in order to recover the Golan, lost to Israel in the 1967 war, and in order to modernize and reform its society.
In reality, Asad and Olmert are profoundly skeptical of each other’s sincerity. The Syrians see Olmert as a weak leader, without vision or moral authority, who is unable or unwilling to make peace. They do not believe he is the man to persuade Israeli opinion of the benefits of peace.
They suspect that he is pretending to move on the Syrian track in order to frighten Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas into making concessions, for fear of being left alone to face Israel. Israel has traditionally sought to play one Arab track against another. Israel, in turn, sees Syria as its most implacable enemy, the only one of its neighbours to pose a military threat, particularly in view of Syria’s alliance with Iran and with Lebanon’s Hizballah.
Israel makes no secret of its prime motive for seeking peace with Syria. It is to sever Syria’s relations with both Iran and Hizballah, in order to bring down the Tehran-Damascus-South Lebanon axis, which Israel and the U.S. see as the main obstacle to their regional hegemony.
But asking Syria to sever links with Iran is as unrealistic as asking Israel to sever links with the United States. Syria and Iran have been strategic partners for nearly three decades, since the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. For Syria – and indeed for several Arab countries, especially in the Gulf — Iran will always be an important regional power whose weight and influence cannot be ignored. Syrian officials concede, however, that in a context of peace their dependence on Iran would inevitably lessen.
As for Hizballah, the Syrian view is that, once Israel returns the Shab‘a Farms to Lebanon, once it releases long-term Lebanese prisoners, and once the Shi‘a community secures its proper place in Lebanon’s political system, then Hizballah will cease to be an armed resistance movement and will become a peaceful political party.
There remains the delicate question of the relationship between the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. Syria cannot consider concluding a separate peace with Israel unless the Palestinians, too, are on their way to obtaining their national rights. The two tracks need not advance in unison, but they are certainly complementary. The Syrians hope to play a role in unifying Palestinian ranks and in helping to bring about a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation.
These ambitions must, for the time being, remain in the realm of wishful thinking. Seen from Damascus, Israel remains a dangerously aggressive and unpredictable neighbour. Its unprovoked air strike against a military facility in eastern Syria last September, not to mention its continued slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza – which must be judged state terrorism at its very worst – do not send a message to Syrian and Arab opinion that the Jewish state is yet ready for peaceful integration into the region.
Things Are Moving, But The Us Is Absent
By Rami Khouri
In The Daily Star (Lebanon), Opinion
April 30, 2008
One of the important developments in Middle Eastern diplomacy that becomes more obvious with every passing month is the continued marginalization of the United States….
The more the US is marginalized diplomatically as a would-be mediator because of its shortsighted tendency to nearly blindly support Israel's positions, buttress Arab autocrats, and oppose the large, populist Islamo-nationalist movements, the more the other mediators from the Middle East make progress in resolving or reducing the intensity of conflicts.
Two cases in particular are noteworthy: the indirect Hamas-Israel negotiations for a cease-fire in Gaza (mediated by Egypt), and the indirect Israeli-Syrian contacts to achieve a full peace treaty (mediated by Turkey). Both are enormously important developments. If consummated, they would represent solid, even historic, steps toward a resolution of the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict. The chances of success are slim, but they are not zero, and that in itself is noteworthy.
I find it striking that the four most significant or dynamic mediators on major regional problems in the past year have been four regional players: Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. President George W. Bush's effort to prod Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, on the other hand, seems hapless and lacking in credibility, because it is aimed more at pleasing Israel than at meeting the minimal demands and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians….
The US seems often to want to stoke the fires of ideological tension and military conflict by supporting, arming, financing and training one side in domestic political contests such as those in Lebanon and Palestine. The US (and Europe in some cases) is also severely hampered by its decision to boycott or heavily downgrade contacts with key players like Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. The combination of boycotting legitimate actors while actively promoting local confrontations with them is a recipe for what we are witnessing in the Middle East these days: a growing number of political conflicts within countries, and strong linkages between warring actors across the region.
Episodic local tensions have now been transformed into a major and chronic cycle of region-wide political battles, pitting US- and Israeli-backed "moderates" against a wide array of Islamists, "extremists" and "militants" in the Arab world and Iran.
The most important diplomatic process these days is the Syrian-Israeli one. Israelis and Syrians alike have made it clear that something serious is taking place behind the scenes. … A Syrian-Israeli peace agreement would impact heavily on every major issue in the vicinity, because Syria has strategic and tactical relations with every nearby major player and country: Iran, Lebanon, Hizbullah, Iraq, Palestine and Hamas. … Syria for its part will also want direct or indirect influence over Lebanon, and a downgrading of the international tribunal that will prosecute those to be indicted for the Hariri and other murders in Lebanon since February 2005. Lebanon and the international community are reluctant to offer these to Syria, but probably do not totally rule out a reasonable, face-saving compromise. Many Lebanese will be rightly worried that they are about to be sold out.
Syrian-Israeli peace would totally change the political equation in the region, and probably lead to historic changes in Lebanon, Hizbullah's standing, Iran's regional role, the Iraqi situation, and political conditions in Palestine. It is telling of the damage that the US has done to its own role and impact in the Middle East that the potentially most important diplomatic development in the past generation seems to be taking place without any significant American role.
Facts have rarely gotten in the Bush administration's way when demonizing a political opponent, even when that opponent has actually tried to accommodate multiple American demands. Accused of enemy complicity in most places where the US or its allies are involved, Syria has nevertheless regularly offered concrete help in the "war on terror….