'Road to Syria runs through Washington'

The obstacle to a peace deal with Damascus, says Alon Liel, is not Jerusalem but the United States.

alon liel 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
alon liel 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Americans contemplate their political future, a former top Israeli official came to the nation's capital this week to have his say, too. Former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel likes what he's hearing from some of the presidential candidates about a willingness to talk to Syria, with whom he argued Israel could be engaged in peace talks if it weren't for the objections of the Bush administration. Liel, who over the last few years has conducted unofficial talks with Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim Suleiman, hopes that in the last 10 months of George W. Bush's presidency - and the presidential campaign - he can influence people to back his approach. "I'm sure the bottleneck is here in this city," Liel declared during a speech to the Washington-based Middle East Institute Thursday, referring to Bush administration policy to isolate rather than engage Syria. If its objections to Israeli-Syrian talks were to be dropped, he posited that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would seize the opportunity to speak to Israel's long-time foes. "I think he [Olmert] will jump at it." Liel himself said he spent some two years, until the Second Lebanon War, meeting with Suleiman under the auspices of first the Turks and then the Swiss. While Suleiman was in touch with officials in Damascus about their meetings, the Foreign Ministry knew of the meetings but would not participate, Liel said, though both countries have denied the assertion. Liel said Thursday that they had worked out a framework for an agreement, including an Israeli handover of the Golan Heights that would be spread out over up to 15 years and the creation of a park on some of the plateau where Israelis could enter visa-free. In addition, he said the Syrians wanted Israeli businesses to continue to operate there. But, he claimed, Syria wanted US involvement before proceeding with the talks, and Israel could not deliver that because of American opposition. Israel has denied such a barrier exists. During a press conference alongside Bush in Washington in November, Olmert said merely that he "share[d] the same opinion" with Bush that, "We are not against negotiations with Syria. We would love to be able to have negotiations with Syria, but that must be based on a certain reasonable, responsible policy, which is not preformed by Syria for the time being." Liel said that whatever signals the Bush administration was sending to Israel on Syria, its refusal to be a party to negotiations in any case halted the process, since ultimately what Syria wanted was to talk to the US. A State Department official said on Friday that, "In addition to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and a two-state solution, there does need to be a broader regional settlement with all of Israel's neighbors, including Syria. But discussions with Syria are no substitute for what we consider to be the most important focus - furthering the cause of peace and furthering the development of a two-state solution with Israel and the Palestinians." He added that, "The Syrian regime continues to engage in certain activities that are counterproductive to regional peace. We have repeatedly voiced concern over these activities, and Syria knows what it must do to improve relations with its neighbors and the international community." In his conversations with US congressmen and former officials, Liel said many have reacted positively and would also like to see a broader policy change under the next president. Democratic presidential candidates Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton are on record saying they favor engagement with Syria, a sentiment they touched on at their debate Thursday night. Speaking in the context of Iraq, Clinton said, "We need to start diplomatic efforts immediately, getting the Iranians, the Syrians and others to the table. It's in their interest, it's in our interest." Obama made a similar, wider point about Iran, though in the past he has expressed the same views about Syria. Liel said that while he didn't expect to have an impact on current US policy, it was important now to reach out to Bush's successors, both Democrats and Republicans. "We have a feeling that it's easier to catch these people now than after they're elected," he said. He also said the window of opportunity might be shutting as Syria continued to hear negative responses from the Israelis and the Americans. But David Schenker, director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said there was good reason for US caution when it comes to engaging with the Syrians. "I don't think this administration wants anything to do with Syria, and rightly so. Everything Syria has done in the last eight years suggests that Syrians are not interested in seriously pursuing a peace negotiation." He pointed to examples including Syria's harboring of terrorists such as Hizbullah No. 2 Imad Mughniyeh, assassinated this month in Damascus, the country's support for anti-American attacks in Iraq and its growing ties with Iran. He noted that the importance of those ties to Syria represented a strong disincentive for President Bashar Assad to switch to an Israeli-American alliance. Schenker added that there was a cost to the willingness to engage, pointing out that Syria received leverage just from the appearance of talks with Israel. Right now, three years after the Syrians were suspected of being behind the death of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, Syria was looking to evade an international tribunal on the assassination and saw talks with Israel as a way to do that. "It's a tool to alleviate pressures on the regime," he said, casting doubt on the sincerity of Syria's negotiating a peace deal with Israel. Liel acknowledged that he could not be "100 percent" certain that Syria was indeed sincere, but said that his years in contact with Suleiman, and now as the chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society NGO, had convinced him they were sincere and that, at the very least, Israel should explore the option. "It's the first time in the history of the country [Israel] that we have an enemy country saying it wants to talk, on record and in every diplomatic channel, and we say no," said Liel. "It's not our national policy… this is an American policy we were dragged into." Schenker, though, warned that even a new administration - and new approach to Syria - wouldn't necessarily change much. "It's likely to be just as frustrating," he said. "It'll be difficult to find much common ground with the Assad regime, regardless of whether the next administration in Washington is Republican or Democratic."