Peace with Syria? Too costly

The most important reason why Israel should not engage Syria is that the state has nothing significant to offer. Nothing beats the status quo.

golan 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
golan 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The lame duck prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stated that peace with Syria can be clinched in a short time, and immediately flew to Ankara to accept the Syrian territorial demands to fish in the Sea of Galilee. He obviously prefers to go down as peacemaker rather than a crook. This seems to be the only logical explanation for his hyperactivity on the Syrian track. The mere opening of indirect negotiations with Damascus via the services provided by Ankara lacked any diplomatic logic. Why should Israel help Bashar Assad escape his international isolation following his mischievous behavior in Iraq and Lebanon? Indeed, the Bush administration is justified in its anger with the Syrian dictator for allowing insurgents access to Iraq via Syria and for undermining the Seniora pro-Western regime in Beirut. The most important reason why Israel should not engage Syria is that the state has nothing significant to offer. A peace treaty with Syria does not improve the strategic situation. Nothing beats the status quo. Politically, the desire for an embassy in Damascus is too costly. Giving up the strategic Golan plateau deprives Israel of its best defense against potential Syrian aggression. It also signals weakness and undermines deterrence. Economically, uprooting 20,000 Jews and the attempts to resettle them will cost at least $20 billion. In these difficult economic times, this will pose a heavy burden on the economy, not to mention the deep psychological effects on society. The cost of a peace treaty nowadays is clear, as is the current quid pro quo. A treaty with Syria will not improve the country's strategic situation. Generally, Israel has little to gain from economic or cultural interactions with the Arab world. Our neighbors have not opened up to globalization and have remained poor, an unappetizing market for our products. Moreover, their societies are despotic, corrupt, fanatic and in deep cultural crises. The Arab world has nothing to offer and Israel should keep its distance. Moreover, at this particular historic junction Syria carries little weight in the Arab world. The Arab states do not fear a Syrian veto on relations with Israel. More precisely, the Saudi initiative indicates Arab willingness to accommodate Israel in facing the Iranian nuclear challenge. Many Arab states share deep concerns about Syria's strategic relationship with Iran and its rising power in the Middle East. The naïve belief that territorial concessions will dissuade Syria from continuing its cozy relationship with Teheran is baseless. Precisely those who belittle the strategic importance of the Golan Heights believe that Syria ascribes great importance to this piece of territory and its transfer to Syrian hands could change the foreign policy orientation of Damascus. Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, tried unsuccessfully to move Syria toward a pro-American orientation in 1976. Under more auspicious international circumstances, after the Cold War, the formidable US secretary of state James Baker tried again but failed. Even when Washington was the only game in town, the Syrians preferred no ties with the Americans. Many analysts ignore the fact that the regime in Damascus is similar to the dictatorial anti-American regimes in Havana and Pyongyang. Unfortunately, there is a genuine dislike of Uncle Sam in these capitals and an opening up to the West is a mortal danger for these despotic regimes. Why would Bashar Assad jump on a pro-American bandwagon, when the US displayed weakness by electing Barack Obama, a man willing to talk to Iran and advocating an early withdrawal from Iraq? A declining United States is not a desirable ally. Similarly far-fetched is the expectation that Damascus would stop arms and cash flow to Hizbullah and would expel the Islamic Jihad and Hamas headquarters from Syria. Lebanon is still of great importance to Syria, and it is unlikely Assad will relinquish his influence on Lebanese politics. Similarly, Assad will be reluctant to refrain from intervening in Palestinian politics. The expectations that the Syrian regime will behave differently than in the past betrays an ignorance of Middle Eastern politics, and espouses unfounded optimism. In reality, Assad clearly stated that Syria's foreign policy will not be hostage to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The status quo, quite bearable from an Israeli point of view, has been stable since 1973 because Israel is militarily stronger than Syria. As long as the power differential continues, there is little chance for a Syrian challenge to the status quo. Syrians are not unfamiliar with power politics. Indeed, in facing Turkish superiority they gave up their claim to the Alexandretta region, five times as large as the Golan. Leaders such as Olmert are dangerous even during their last hours in power. Fortunately, they can not muster a majority in the Knesset for a reckless move on the Golan. The author is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.