Peace with Syria: Opportunity or diversion?

Will the impasse with the Palestinians open opportunities to seek a deal with Syria?

Assad 311 reuters (photo credit: reuters)
Assad 311 reuters
(photo credit: reuters)
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.
But 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 true.
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,” he explained.
The Golan Heights have great symbolic and strategic value for both sides, but there are even larger interests at stake.
Assad wants 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.
THERE’S ANOTHER 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.
Rabin’s 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.
Even 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 be listening.