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Middle East Roundtable

If Israel negotiates with Syria

Little to lose


by Yossi Alpher

Israel's experience of negotiating with both Syria and the PLO began some 13 years ago in Madrid. Since then, the key tactical questions have been whether to negotiate with these two actors simultaneously or sequentially and, if sequentially, with whom to begin.

Previous experience is so diverse as to be of little help. In 1948-49 Israel negotiated armistice agreements with all its state neighbors (not the Palestinians) in quick succession. In 1977-79 it negotiated solely with Egypt, which even took upon itself to represent the Palestinian cause in framing the Camp David agreements. In 1994 PM Yitzhak Rabin negotiated secretly with Jordan during the Oslo I discussions with the PLO, but for historic, geographic and demographic reasons the circumstances of the Jordan-PLO-Israel triangle were very different from those involving Syria.

Since Madrid, various Israeli leaders have treated the issue differently. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir negotiated under duress with both Syria and the Palestinians simultaneously, but he apparently sought to ensure that neither track would succeed. Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres and Barak at various times gave priority to the Syrian track. They reasoned that an early agreement with Syria, and by extension with Lebanon, would round out the circle of peace around Israel and deprive the Islamist and secular Palestinian radical terrorist organizations of support, thereby leaving the PLO in a weaker negotiating position. Indeed, to some extent it was also assumed that the very fact of highly publicized parallel negotiations with Syria and the PLO would render both more flexible.

Prime Minister Netanyahu also gave priority to the Syrian track. But he kept his talks with the Syrians a secret, while his negotiations with the Palestinians were in any case confined to limited goals, i.e., withdrawal from Hebron and the Wye River agreement. Some Israeli leaders, like Rabin, opined that the Israeli public was in any case not capable of "absorbing" two simultaneous agreements with Arab neighbors that involved territorial concessions. Virtually all appeared to believe that a deal with Syria would have broader geo-strategic benefits for Israel, would be far less complicated to negotiate and, in terms of territorial concessions and immediate benefits, would be easier for the Israeli public to accept.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is basically not interested in negotiating with either Syria or the PLO if this means making significant Israeli territorial concessions or offering confidence building measures. Thanks to Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, there is no peace process with the PLO. The PLO/Palestinian Authority is so weak, and anarchy so rampant, that Israel may not have a viable Palestinian partner anyway. Hence talks with Syria can hardly be conceptualized as a tactic for exercising political leverage vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

The key to understanding this situation and its costs and benefits for Israel lies in post-9/11 American policies in the region. Thanks to the US war on terrorism and occupation of Iraq, Israel's regional strategic situation has never been so good: there is no threat of conventional war, and a powerful American ally is targeting the weapons of mass destruction and Islamic terrorism that threaten Israel. Radical countries like Syria, Libya and Iran are in various ways beginning to seek to accommodate Washington. There is little if any American pressure on Israel to make concessions or even to negotiate with Syria or the PLO. Indeed, the current situation, in which Syrian President Bashar Asad is offering to renew negotiations without pre-conditions and Washington does not take the initiative to mediate between Damascus and Jerusalem, is without precedent.

If only the neo-conservatives in Washington knew where to draw the line in Israel's case! By allowing and even encouraging Sharon not to talk to Asad, they are sending a message to the Arab world that neither they nor Israel are interested in peace. Sending ambiguous and half-hearted protests to Jerusalem regarding the fence, the outposts, and Sharon's plan to reduce settlements in Gaza and thicken them in the West Bank, the Americans are enabling and encouraging him to create an apartheid reality that is the very antithesis of the democratization that they preach for the region.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Sharon accepted Asad's initiative and agreed to negotiate. The results could hardly be negative. If indeed Syria is weak, confused and in need of improved relations with the US, then Israel might get a better territorial deal than anything offered to it in the past. If not, it at least displayed a readiness to talk peace with a neighbor. As for the Palestinian sphere, Israel could demand that the first item on its agenda with Syria be Hizballah's activities, not only in southern Lebanon but in fomenting terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza. To the extent that an Israeli-Syrian agreement looks possible, this might encourage Yasser Arafat to take security steps that would stabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations and set the stage for renewed negotiations.

Even if Israeli-Syrian talks are once again doomed to failure, we have little to lose by trying.

- Published 16/2/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Bitterlemons-international.org aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 22-02-2004



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