The Middle East Is Our Home

Israel is a Middle Eastern country whether it likes it or not. We will have to keep fighting for our place in the region by military or diplomatic means.

Middle East (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Middle East (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
AGAIN THE SEASON OF SPIN ABOUT VIRTUAL TALKS with Syria is here. It invariably comes after the collapse of negotiations with the Palestinians, with international pressure on Israel to get a peace process going and the Labor party threatening to leave the coalition. How transparent. How predictable.
It is hard to believe that two years ago we were still in the throes of official negotiations with the Syrians. Rumor at the time had it that there had been progress on the bilateral issues.
Unfortunately, that negotiation conducted through Turkish mediation ground to a halt with the launch of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the end of 2008.
Only two years have elapsed since then, but Middle Eastern realities have changed quite significantly. For example, Syria has signed a “quartet cooperation” agreement with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan that includes economic integration, a four-way free-trade zone and a waiver of visas. In other words, the Syrians now have regional allies besides the Iranians. Indeed, Syria’s heavy reliance on Iran is gradually being replaced by a new dependency on Turkey.
The 2010 figures point to a meshing of the Turkish and Syrian economies, with the Turks leading the way in foreign investment in Syria and Iran trailing well behind. Trade between Turkey and Syria grew at a dizzying rate as did two-way tourist traffic. The relationship between the two armies is also growing more intimate.
It is difficult today to envisage a major Syrian diplomatic move without Turkish involvement. Moreover, the Turkish- Syrian alliance has not hurt their respective ties with Washington. On the contrary, the US is about to dispatch ambassadors to Damascus and Ankara after a long delay.
There have also been far-reaching changes in Israel’s regional standing.
Of the eight Muslim states that were represented in Israel in 2000, five are no longer in Tel Aviv, and two of the remaining three (Turkey and Jordan) have recalled their ambassadors, without saying when they might be back. For now, Egypt is the only Muslim country with a sitting ambassador in Israel. The widely held assumption that the peace talks with the Palestinians are beyond salvation does not augur well for Israel’s future status in the region. And all the while Iran is moving inexorably towards nuclear weapons.
But the Israeli leadership seems totally indifferent to the country’s growing regional isolation. Instead, it has found new friends outside the region – Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania – and is now focusing on the Balkans as a more appealing neighborhood than the Middle East.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sees Europe rather than the Middle East as the country’s natural habitat. Therefore, the current Israeli government is in no hurry to make peace with the Syrians or the Palestinians. So much so that it recently tied its own hands by passing a referendum law, which bars the handover of the Golan Heights to Syria or East Jerusalem to the Palestinians without a two-thirds majority in the Knesset or a majority in a national referendum.
Recently, a real chance for a breakthrough on the Syria-Turkey track was consigned to the scrap heap of history.
Senior Israeli and Turkish diplomats meeting in Geneva worked out a formula for an Israeli apology for the tragic events aboard the Mavi Marmara, (one of several ships trying to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza last May), in which eight Turkish citizens and an American of Turkish descent were killed. The formula, approved by much of the Israeli establishment, would have paved the way for a renewal of the diplomatic dialogue with Turkey, Syria’s ally. But somebody very senior in Jerusalem apparently did not want this to happen. Just as the formula was doing the rounds, Lieberman saw fit to call Turkey’s leaders liars, ensuring that the agreement would be shelved.
The fact is the Israel of 2011 has changed direction. The current Israeli leadership sees no need for acceptance in the Middle East.
It knows that such acceptance can only come at the price of returning territories it is unwilling to cede. That is to say, the Middle East is no longer seen as our home.
But Israel is a Middle Eastern country whether it likes it or not. Theodor Herzl decided that for us and we have built a state here we can be proud of. We will have to keep fighting for our place in the region by military or diplomatic means.
There is definitely a chance for an agreement with Syria now, if Israel wants it. Israel would have to transfer sovereignty over the Golan Heights to Syria, in a phased timetable, up to a line both sides agree to call the June 4, 1967 line. This would normalize Israel’s ties with most countries in the region. No less important, it would further isolate the militant Iranians. And, at the moment of truth, the Israeli public will prefer to stay in the Middle East over a virtual move to the Balkans.
Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, is chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society. Between 2004 and 2006, he held informal talks on the Israel-Syria issue.