Will the impasse with the Palestinians open opportunities to seek a deal with
Syria? The military and intelligence establishment has been urging Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to pursue that track because the issues are more
straightforward and the potential strategic benefits much greater. Also, the
Syrian dictator keeps telling visitors he is ready for negotiations.
Netanyahu has shown little real interest. He did say, “I want to make it clear
that if Syria strives for peace, it will find a loyal partner in Israel,” but he
also declared that he opposes leaving the Golan Heights, and he knows without
that there can be no deal.
In fact, there is one thing Netanyahu and
Syrian President Bashar Assad already agree on: Neither thinks the other is
serious. And neither appears willing to risk finding out whether that is
An American foreign policy expert familiar with the thinking of
leaders in Washington, Jerusalem and Damascus says Assad is ready to engage but
won’t – or can’t – make the first move because of opposition from hard-liners in
his Ba’ath party and military establishment. “That’s the nature of the regime,”
The Golan Heights have great symbolic and strategic value
for both sides, but there are even larger interests at stake.
closer ties with the West, particularly the US, and the trade, investment and
respectability that this will bring, plus removal from the US terrorism list. In
frequent visits and phone conversations, Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the
Foreign Relations Committee, like others before him has been telling Assad the
road to Washington goes through Jerusalem. The two are reportedly trying to find
a formula for reviving talks that broke off in late 2008.
A high priority
for Israel is driving a wedge between Syria and Iran. A total break is unlikely,
but a weakened relationship is possible, and that has Tehran worried enough to
send President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or one of his minions rushing to Damascus on
repair missions just about every time an American official comes to meet with
Assad. Israel also wants Syria to give up its nuclear ambitions and stop arming
and hosting Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror groups.
angle. When Israeli leaders want to bring pressure on the Palestinians – like
today, when that track is going nowhere – they often flirt with Syria, as if to
say we can bypass you unless you’re more flexible.
Prime minister Yitzhak
Rabin, who preferred the Syrian track because the issues were clearer, let
president Hafez Assad know in 1994, via the Clinton administration, that he was
prepared for a full withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for full peace,
including normalization of relations and the meeting of Israel’s security needs.
Known as “Rabin’s deposit,” it was held by the US with the understanding that
nothing would be agreed to until everything was agreed to.
assassination in 1995 and the subsequent focus on the Palestinian track derailed
things, but Netanyahu, during his first term, pursued backchannel talks through
American Jewish leader Ronald Lauder. There are conflicting accounts of how much
progress was made.
Then came prime minister Ehud Barak, who got the
closest to an agreement in January 2000 at a summit hosted by president Bill
Clinton at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, but by most accounts both sides got
cold feet. In the end it didn’t matter, because by that time Barak’s government
was collapsing and he couldn’t have sold a deal anyway.
Today as defense
minister, he is again pushing for the Syrian track, but Netanyahu, with a more
rightwing government, is unwilling to back Rabin’s deposit, and the Syrians
won’t start talking without it.
The American expert, who has close ties
to the Jewish community, said it will take a gesture from Netanyahu to start
things moving again. “It must be a private, written letter affirming the Rabin
deposit and a readiness to send envoys to meet, directly or indirectly,” he
said. “It requires secret diplomacy to get started.”
TALKS BETWEEN the
two sides, under Turkish mediation, broke off in late 2008 in the wake of
Operation Cast Lead against Hamas forces in Gaza. “Both sides told me they were
80 percent there,” said the expert.
The ensuing schism between Israel and
Turkey became increasingly bitter as Ankara moved away from the West to tightly
embrace Iran and Syria.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who enjoyed
the role of mediator and says he’d like to resume it, has displayed such a
visceral hatred of the Jewish state that he has lost Israeli trust.
if Netanyahu were inclined to cut a deal with Assad – which appears doubtful –
he made it more difficult by backing recent legislation requiring that any
territorial compromise be submitted to a national referendum. The current tumult
rocking the Arab world has also bolstered the Right’s argument that it would be
foolish to trade the strategic plateau and quiet border for a piece of paper
signed by a dictator who may soon be gone.
For all their talk about
peace, neither the Israelis nor the Syrians – nor for that matter the
Palestinians – appear to be serious enough to fully engage each other with more
than excuses and accusations.
If opportunity is knocking, no one seems to