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Is it time to give priority to the Syrian track?

Thomas Mitchell, in a guest column pasted below, asserts that the U.S. and the EU should place a higher priority on peace talks with Syria. I have spoken to two people engaged in Track 2 diplomacy who have been exploring this option for the last 18 months (trust me on that one). They have met with Syrian officials and believe that under the right circumstances, a deal with Syria is possible.

What Mitchell does not explore fully in his piece is the likely reaction from the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Palestinian people if it is apparent that major progress is being made on the Syrian track while the Palestinian conflict still festers. When Barak tried to pursue peace with Syria first, it was infuriating to the Palestinians and had a deleterious impact on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Mitchell also doesn’t mention the potential reaction from the Israeli people and the furious opposition to giving back the Golan that would be reinvigorated if talks with Assad seemed to be making headway.

Moreover, as noted in the previous post, I believe it would be very dangerous to put the Palestinian track on hold. That said, Tom Mitchell raises some interesting points. Here is his essay:

Time For a New T[r]ack

By Thomas Mitchell

The web is full of people giving gratuitous advice to Obama about what to do in the peace process now that he seems to have reached a dead end. So I’ll add mine.

During the 1990s the Israeli peace camp –with a dream coalition of Labor at a ten-year high in terms of seats and a brand-new Meretz at its peak– was not able to negotiate a final agreement with Arafat and the PLO. Israel now faces a weaker leader with less ability to make compromises. Both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak only began negotiating seriously on the Palestinian track once they convinced themselves that they would not be able to get a deal on the Syrian track. Peres, in the winter of 1996, also began negotiating with Damascus rather than with Ramallah.

In Israel, there are two schools of thought about Damascus. One holds that the Ba’athist dictatorship in Damascus needs the Arab-Israeli conflict as a diversion for its population so that they will overlook the fact that heterodox Muslims or even infidels (Alawis) are ruling in a Sunni Muslim country. Damascus, rather than being willing to pay a price to end the conflict, is willing to pay a high price to keep it going. This school also believes that Damascus will never abandon the Shi’ite alliance with either Tehran or Hezbollah. The leading Mizrakhan (Arabist) to hold this viewpoint is Barry Rubin, who writes about it in his 2007 book, The Truth About Syria (Palgrave Macmillan). Daniel Pipes in the U.S. holds this view as well.

But in Israel there are a number of academics who have specialized in Syria who hold a contrary view. Moshe Maoz, a biographer of Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the present Syrian dictator, Bashar, held that Hafiz would have been willing to make peace with Israel in return for getting all of the Golan back.

Itamar Rabinovich, a professor at Tel Aviv University and former ambassador to Washington under Rabin and Peres, blamed the Syrian succession process for Hafiz al-Assad’s unwillingness to seriously consider Barak’s offer to him. Because Hafiz was unwilling to make any gesture comparable to Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in 1977, Barak lost his nerve and wanted to make a territorial swap that would have slightly altered the June 4, 1967 border. With the Assads it was/is a point of honor that they receive more from Israel by steadfastness and rejection than what Sadat achieved through diplomacy. This meant that they have demanded that Israel not only return to the international border between mandatory Palestine and Syria, but also return to Syria some territory conquered by the Syrian army in the early 1950s. Despite the claims of Rubin, Israel did not offer Syria 100 percent of its territory back in 2000. Rabinovich seems to feel that under different circumstances Hafiz al-Assad would have been willing to make peace with Israel in exchange for 100 percent of the Golan.

Much progress, however, was made in the negotiations between 1993 and 2000 in terms of security measures and normalization. Turkey mediated discussions between Israel and Syria during the Olmert administration. There was talk of establishing a peace park along the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) that Israelis could enter for the day to picnic. But due to the worsening relations between Ankara and Jerusalem since the Gaza war, the latter does not want the former as a mediator.

There is a good opportunity to test out dual mediation in the Middle East by having both Washington and Brussels sponsor peace talks between Israel and Syria someplace in either the U.S. or Europe, or alternating between the two venues.

Netanyahu could sell the negotiations to his coalition as an attempt to weaken Iran by separating it from its key Arab ally. Washington could sell the negotiations to the Arab world as a chance to end another Israeli occupation and restore peace along the Lebanese border. For Europe. it would be its first chance at Middle East diplomacy and the chance to play in the big league.

For Syria, the talks would be a chance to improve relations with Washington and gain access to Western investment and even tourism. Presumably, to get Damascus to cut its military ties to Iran and stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, Washington would have to pay a hefty bribe. But Washington has been doing this since the Sinai II agreement in 1975.

If the negotiations are successful, this would give the Obama administration a diplomatic victory, credibility in the Middle East and an opportunity to take on the Palestinian track in a second term or by a future American administration. It would also eliminate the need for future Israeli prime ministers to make a choice as to first pursuing diplomacy with Damascus or with Ramallah. The Obama administration could also use the period of negotiations to allow Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to pursue state-building with American economic and administrative assistance. If the negotiations fail due to a lack of willingness on the Israeli side, Netanyahu should be made aware that Washington will return to the Palestinian track with a vengeance. This is the equivalent of Plan B (joint Anglo-Irish rule) that helped to focus minds in Northern Ireland.

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