Diplomacy: New Heights

Why is Olmert expressing a willingness, precisely now, to withdraw from the Golan for peace with Syria?

olmert yad vashem 224 (photo credit: Meir Azulai: Flash 90)
olmert yad vashem 224
(photo credit: Meir Azulai: Flash 90)
One long-standing axiom of Israeli "peace making" is that this country cannot "juggle while sitting on a unicycle," or - to put matters in diplomatic terms - it can't hold intensive negotiations on two tracks at the same time. What this means practically is that if there are intensive negotiations with the Palestinians, then the Syrian track has to be left for another day; and when Syria is the focus, the Palestinians are shunted aside. A senior western diplomatic official said recently that considering that the number of people who are doing the serious diplomatic heavy-lifting in this country is so small - essentially three people at the Defense Ministry, headed by Amos Gilad; and Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman in the Prime Minister's Office - he was very skeptical about Israel's ability to handle intensive negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians at one and the same time. Yet that is precisely what is being discussed. Currently, intensive negotiations with the Palestinians are taking place at four different levels: between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei; between technical teams; and between Defense Minister Ehud Barak, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and US General William Fraser on the road map. Nevertheless, the specter of negotiations with the Syrians is gaining traction. Which raises the question: Why? Why is Olmert expressing a willingness, precisely now, to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal with Syria? Is it out of a realization that the true existential threat to this country comes from the North, not the South, and that a genuine effort needs to be made to reduce Iran's regional influence? Is it a bid to keep the Syrians from retaliating for embarrassment caused by the congressional hearings last week showing just how impotent Damascus was in the face of Israel's destruction of an alleged North Korean-style nuclear reactor? Is it a "divide and conquer tactic," as some in the Arab world seem to suspect? Or is Olmert - by now universally recognized as a political wizard - getting ready for the elections and positioning himself for an upcoming leadership battle inside Kadima? The answer, it seems, is a little bit of all of the above. When Olmert, from his perch in the Prime Minister's Office, looks out at that vast array of threats facing the country, the most worrisome - obviously - comes from the North. Gaza is a nuisance, but is not an existential threat (unless, of course, you live in the South, where the threat of a rocket crashing into your home and ending your life is about as existential as they come). Kassam rockets, as opposed to nuclear missiles, are not an immediate threat to the country's continued existence into the next 60 years. Iran, however, is. Olmert's interest in keeping the fires of a potential agreement with Syria stoked seems geared, at least in part, to weakening Iran by pulling Syria out of its orbit. The isolation of Iran is an overarching aim of Israel and the US, and pulling Syria away would help achieve that goal. But then the question arises as to whether this is even possible. Can Syria be pulled out of Iran's orbit, or is it spinning so tightly around Teheran that at this point attempts to pull it away would be futile? On this issue there is disagreement. While Military Intelligence believes it is is possible to tear the Iranian-Syrian alliance asunder, the Mossad doesn't. WHAT IS emerging, it seems, is a middle position which posits that while it may be impossible to completely sever Syrian-Iranian ties, perhaps they can be diluted to some extent, and in the process end Syrian support for two of Israel's greatest problems: Hamas and Hizbullah. One reason severing Syria's ties with Iran appears so difficult has to do with Syria's uncomfortable geographical situation. Look, for a second, at the world through Syria's eyes. To the north is Turkey, a country with which Damascus now has friendly ties, but with which, just a few years ago, it was actually on the verge of war. To the east is Iraq, with US troops amassed on the border. To the south is Jordan, for which there is little love lost, and Israel. And to the west is Lebanon, which in Syria's eyes the US and EU are hell bent on prying loose from its control. In that less-than-friendly neighborhood, Iran - a rapidly growing regional power that, while not a direct neighbor, is very close by - gives Syria some strategic depth. It seems highly improbable that Syria, in its current situation, would forfeit that particular asset. Then there is the issue of money. It isn't Syria's booming economy (there isn't one) that is enabling it to buy billions of dollars' worth of weapons from Russia. It's not its oil industry (not that significant) or high-tech prowess (non-existent). It is Iran. One diplomatic official said that expecting Syria to detach itself from Iran now would be similar to asking Damascus to cut off ties with its Soviet patron in the 1980s, something patently impossible. STILL, OLMERT'S recent messages to Damascus imply that it is worth a try. The effort itself, interestingly enough, has recalibrated the whole discussion regarding Syria. In a matter of days, the talk in Israel went from possible war with Syria - large IDF drills on the Golan Heights and messages that Syria would be held responsible for a terrorist act to avenge the assassination of Hizbullah's Imad Mugniyah - to possible peace with Syria. Indeed, there is a school of thought that maintains the timing of the whole Golan-is-back-on-the-table gambit had to do with last week's testimony in the US Congress about what Israel hit in its September 6 raid on Syria, and real concerns that the ensuing embarrassment that Israel took out a nuclear reactor would spur Assad into some military action to regain his, and his country's, tarnished pride. Israel's putting forward a possible Golan Heights withdrawal, according to this reasoning, made such a step much more difficult for Assad, for if he took military action now he would be blamed for setting back a fledgling "peace process." This process itself already has some in the Arab world smelling an Israeli maneuver. For instance, Walid Choucair, a columnist for the pan-Arab daily, Al Hayat, wrote this week that "Washington and Tel Aviv have always tried to use the opening of negotiations on the Syrian track as a means to isolate the Palestinians and force them to make more concessions." Indeed, the same newspaper reported on Wednesday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem briefed Damascus-based Hamas head Khaled Mashaal on Turkey's efforts to renew the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. According to the paper, the Syrians made clear there were two conditions for this: that it not "negatively impact" on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and that it not be used as an umbrella for "continued aggression" against the Palestinians. Obviously, there is concern among the Syrians and the Palestinians that by turning to the Syrian option, Israel is admitting that there are serious problems in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And, indeed, it is widely believed that there are considerable problems on that track, and that things are not necessarily running on a schedule that would enable the unveiling of a shelf agreement with the Palestinians before the end of US President George W. Bush's term - something Bush wants badly. But whether this is behind the renewed interest in a Syrian track is an open question. SOME OFFICIALS in Jerusalem say the renewed interest in Syria has more to do with Olmert's naked political considerations than with his trying to wring concessions out of the Palestinians. According to this reasoning, Olmert is concerned that the current negotiations with the Palestinians could fail in the end, and he would be left in the unenviable political position of having no diplomatic process to show for all his efforts. To prevent that from happening, according to this reasoning, he is interested in a back-up track - the Syrians - so he could say to political detractors both inside his party and to his left, that while he may not have concluded a shelf agreement with the Palestinians, he has kick-started some kind of process with Syria. Olmert, according to this analysis, is looking for constituents, for an issue. History has shown that Israelis like their leaders to talk peace and be willing to make war. Olmert has shown, both in Lebanon in July 2006 and in Syria in September 2007, that he is willing to make war. Now he is talking peace. It is a magic combination the prime minister is betting is attractive to the political center - precisely the ground he is trying to conquer.