Stirrings in Damascus (Extract)

03liel (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
03liel (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's message to Syrian President Bashar Asad reaffirming Israel's readiness for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights has created a realistic opportunity for a renewal of peace negotiations between their two countries. The intensive Turkish mediation effort, orchestrated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself, reinforces the impression that something is happening. For the first time in eight years, the possibility of an official meeting between high-level Syrian and Israeli representatives is very much in the cards. Still, it has to be said that relations between Israel and Syria are far more complex today than they were in 2000, when the last rounds of peace talks imploded with a bang in Shepherdstown and Geneva - with President Bill Clinton on hand and fully committed to the peacemaking process. In 2000, it was still possible to trade the Golan for peace; today that simple equation seems totally inadequate. Since then, Syria has gone a long way towards allying itself with the reactionary terrorist forces of the Islamic world, and detaching it from the extremist embrace will not be easy. In Israel, too, perceptions have changed. Peace with Syria is no longer widely regarded as a major asset, especially in light of the cold wind that has been blowing from Cairo for more than a quarter of a century, despite the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace deal in 1979. Indeed, the public opinion hurdle Olmert faces is not insignificant. For years, polls have consistently shown that around 70 percent of Israelis oppose withdrawal from the Golan, even when the quid pro quo is a peace agreement with Syria. For Asad, giving up his ties with Iran, Syria's most significant regional ally, is equally problematic. Iran has become Syria's economic savior. It has been generous not only in funding for Syrian arms purchases, but has also made huge investments in Syrian energy, communications and transport. A deal with Israel would entail Asad's unconditional surrender of the golden eggs from Tehran. That constitutes a strategic difficulty equal to that faced by Olmert over conceding the Golan. Both leaders will have to show considerable courage and leadership if they are to make peacemaking history. It won't be easy to come up with an equation that satisfies both sides. It would have to assure the Syrians that besides sovereignty over the Golan, they get financial and strategic compensation for the loss of Iranian aid, a friendly Lebanon as well as a significant supply of water from Turkey and a new desalination plant as compensation for Israel's continued use of the sources on the Golan. Besides an exchange of ambassadors and a demilitarized Golan, Israel will have to get guarantees that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and other Palestinian rejectionists will be expelled from Damascus, that the Syrian border will be hermetically sealed against arms smuggling to Hizballah in Lebanon, and that Syria will sever its strategic alliance with Iran (although it would be allowed to maintain diplomatic relations and civilian economic ties, assuming Tehran agrees to that after the radical reorientation of Syrian foreign policy). Dr. Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, is chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society. Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.