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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.

20 thoughts on “Is it time to give priority to the Syrian track?

  1. Once again we hear from writers : “I am a reasonable person, I want peace, so therefore it must be that everyone else wants what I want”. Why on earth should Syria want to break its Shi’ite alliance with Iran and HIZBULLAH when it seems they are in the ascendancy? For heaven’s sake, Turkey is now moving in their direction! What if Iran does get the bomb? Then their power and their alliance will multiply. HIZBULLAH is entrenching its position in Lebanon. So why should Syria cut a deal with Israel thereby abandoning the Palestinians (remember what happened to Sadat who did they same thing?).
    And once again we hear “its Barak’s fault”, “if only he offered a few more square meters of territory”, “he wasn’t polite enough”, “he didn’t grovel enough”. Perish the thought that it might be the Arabs who are the intransigent party! If the supposed “benefits” of going with Israel and the US are so clear for Syria, wouldn’t they be willing to give up a few square meters of territory? Obviously, that is not the case.

    If Iran gets the bomb then Assad can fantasize that he will get the Golan back for free because the Israelis are scared, just as when Sharon ran away from Gaza.

  2. Although not directly connected with this thread, the following article is most instructive regarding “the peace process” (which Assad, like Abbas supports in the place of really making peace):


    Note how the Saudis and others won’t give money to the Palestinian Authority? Why should they, when the dhimmis (US and EU) can cough up the dough? What are they doing to support Fayyad’s supposed attempt to build a state infrastructure? Nothing. Rather odd, since they say they do want the Palestinians to have a state, so you would think they would want to help them, but they don’t, which, in the end, goes to prove what I am always saying…nobody in the Arab world wants the Palestinians to make a peace agreement with Israel. Same with Syria. They will support a “peace process” as long as it brings in goodies from the US and Europeans.

    BTW-Arafat always used the “I’m weak, I’m going to quit, you have to give me more concessions” game, too. We see where that lead.

  3. One of the reasons that Iran’s power is increasing is because Israel is isolated. Rather that participate in a Mediterrean center of regional gravity, Syria and others inland are asked to participate in a central Asian.

    Israel should make it possible for the Mediterranean track to be more important.

  4. One big reason Iran seems to be in the ascendancy is that America is perceived as being in decline. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem inconclusive and this is sapping America’s military force. Iran is very aggressive and Obama’s weak responses seem to invite further bellicosity. America also has real economic problems. This is much more of a factor than what Israel is doing, because Israel has always been “isolated” in the Middle East and always will be, whether or not there are “peace agreements”.

  5. YBD:

    You are free to read whatever you like into my presentation. I presented two Israeli views of Ba’athist Syria. Ideologues normally don’t like balanced presentations–they know the TRUTH and see no need to pair it with falsehood, which is why churches are banned in Saudi Arabia. All I say is do an experiment and see if Syria is willing to give up the state of war in exchange for the Golan.

  6. America IS in decline.

    We are in the speculative world more than in the productive and ecological.

    And, even if there is great will to support Israel (which is also in decline), there is less and less means to.

    And, if Israel acts contemptuously (as Netanyahu’s recent promise to Obama to restrain settlement construction, will planning it), Israel will be entirely isolated.

    How many conspicuous insults do you think Obama will weather?

    And, if Israel loses most European support, much American support, and existing treaties with Jordan and Egypt break down, Israel will isolated more than at any time since its inception.

    And, that that occurred following Arab League conditional acceptance of Israel, and unprecedented US support, will be a tragedy of mythic proportions.

    People will write history, certainly Shakespearean drama, and even illustrative scripture, of the idiocy of likud zealotry.

  7. Israel is NOT losing European and American support. Of course, if you mean that America would cut aid to Israel, that would be most welcome, the aid DAMAGES Israel’s economy. Almost all the military aid money is spent in the US, so if Obama wants to lay off the workers who make the IDF’s battle rations, combat boots and much equipment and bring the jobs back to Israel, that would be wonderful. Also because of the cursed aid, EL AL is forced to buy Boeing aircraft when Airbus offerred better deals. The Air Force could then also buy Russian fighter jets, some of which are very good. Israel could then upgrade them.

    Richard-ask yourself why the Palestinian threat to declare a state unilaterally fizzled out-the Europeans and US openly said they opposed it. Why? BECAUSE THEY KNOW IT IS THE ARABS WILL NEVER AGREE TO AN ACCEPTABLE PEACE AGREEMENT. They know the Arabs are responsible for the impasse. They know that the “Arab League Proposal” is a lot of garbage.

    I am not worried about the US and EU downgrading relations. Why? Because most people in the world (outside of the Arab/Muslim countries) DON’T CARE ABOUT THE PALESTINIANS, they don’t care about settlements, they don’t care about Goldstone. This includes Europe. The only reason the US and EU gov’ts go on babbling about it is because of the Arab petrodollars that influence politicians (e.g. the millions of dollars the Saudis put into Jimmy Carter’s pockets).
    Yes, you Jewish “progressives” go on and on obsessing about the Palestinians day after day out of feeling of Jewish guilt and angst, and the non-Jews out of latent or explicit antisemitic feelings. But most people don’t care. I will demonstrate how-
    At this very moment there are human rights violations all around the world that dwarf whaever complaints the Palestinians have about going through checkpoints. Recently hundreds of poeple were killed in the Caucusus, EVERY DAY there are bloody terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. There were massive rampages of Muslims against Christians in sub-Saharan Africa (beside the genocide in Sudan) in which thousands died. Then there is Tibet and other massive human rights abuses in China.
    YET NONE OF THE “PROGRESSIVE” BLOGGERS like MJ Rosenberg, Phil Weiss, Richard Silverstein, MagnesZionist, Bernard Avishai et al NEVER MENTION THEM. They DON’T CARE ABOUT THESE ATROCITIES. Now, I am not necessarily blaming them, no one in the world can worry about everything. Even the Arabs/Muslims themselves are indifferent to the atrocities that Muslims are doing to other Muslims every day. Do you ever see, for example, a rally of Millions of French Muslims demanding an end to the Muslim-on-Muslim terror I mentioned. No. They don’t care. In fact the only people who care about the Muslim victims are the people that the “progressives” call “Islamophobes” like Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and others. The rest of the Muslim world and their “progressive” allies are indifferent.

    Now, as I said, the Jewish “progressives” work out their guilt feelings by making knee-jerk support for Israel’s enemies. (A good example is how all these “progressive” bloggers immediately put out pieces about “Jewish terror” as soon as Major Hasan carried out his massacre in order to divert attention from “Muslim terror”). But then they make a mistake that I have noticed among “progressives”-they assume that everyone in the world thinks like them. They assume that just as they have put the “poor” Palestinians on the pedestal of victimhood, the worst victims of oppression in the world, as it were, they then assume that everyone else in the world thinks the same. WELL, THEY DON’T. Most of the world doesn’t care about the Palestinians or the settlements. So there is not going to be big pressure from public opinion (outside of the bizarre alliance of Muslims, Communists, anti-globalists and neo-Nazis) to really lean on Israel. Yes, the anti-Israel forces in places like Scandinavia are better organized and they can shout down those who oppose boycotts (even though the Norwegian university voted unanimously NOT to boycott Israel in spite of the fact that Norway’s gov’t is pretty hostile to Israel by European standards). The pro-Israel forces are not as well organized there. So our job is to rally the pro-Israel forces there and they can reach out to the apathetic majority. Most Europeans may not love Israel but they see what their own Muslim minority is doing and they are really beginning to understand what Israel is up against. This outreach can be done and is being done.
    You have all seen the polls that support for Israel is at an all time high, IN SPITE of “progressive” propaganda, Arab money infusion into the American political system, in spite of Goldstone, in spite of everything.
    Thus, I am optimistic. The world is NOT turning against Israel. Yes, there are problems, but we have overcome worse situations in the past and we will continue to do so.

  8. Be careful Yakov.

    There is a very strong basis of support for Israel in the US and Europe, substantive support.

    And, there is a growing basis of criticism.

    In the Gilo incident, Netanyahu lied publicly to Obama, apparently intentionally humiliating him. I am thankful that the US is led by a president that is not so driven by emotional rage to affect his policies materially.

    But, at the same time, if his attitudes are in a state of stress, a public insult might be the slight wiff of wind that shifts his administration’s behavior.

    I don’t agree that losing a billion or two in aid will be inconsequential to Israel, nor do I consider the effect on the US economy or districts even to be that consequential.

    I think Israel has the most to risk in the security council. The US has loyally vetoed many ambiguously prejudicial resolutions, but even if that vote is shifted to an abstention on something even incidental, I hope that that would serve as information.

    The world is supportive of Israel’s existence, as I am. Your assessment that the world is supportive of annexation, forced removal of individuals with compelling title to their homes and land, or supportive of suppression of Palestinian viability, strikes me as self-talk.

    That you use terms like “turning on Israel” to describe rational criticism of policies, is an example of isolation and desparation, rather than thought.

    My aversion to the far left is of demonizing tone and exageration. Others similarly hear that tone and conclude that the themes of boycott are mean, rather than rational.

    But, please don’t delude yourselves that most regard annexation and expropriation as rational and supportable.

  9. I think Yaakov has a point about most of the world not being deeply vested in the I/P issue.

    However, there’s obviously some interest–even if it’s only about controlling instability in a region where the West gets its oil. A lot of political energy has been spent trying to negotiate a peace.

    As far as support for Israel goes, I don’t see a decline. Only the usual suspects making a lot of noise. Israel has always had its enemies stateside (and in Europe). I don’t see evidence that the number has increased.

  10. I do.

    My son yesterday described to me that Israel’s current policies are examples of racism in practice, and that that was consistent with its original basis of organization and policy.

    I explained that in formation, the existence of Israel was NECESSARY and a fulfillment of international justice, not an exception to it. But, that once Israel reached a status of enough, and particularly after offers of peace from the entire Arab world (at least states), that its character has shifted.

    And, that the appropriate effort is to restore Israel to the status of Jewish AND democratic.

  11. How could Netanyahu have “lied” to Obama, when he made it crystal clear that Jerusalem was not part of his proposed “settlement freeze” (which I oppose)?

    Regarding “world support for Israel”, you are partly correct-they don’t like the settlements BUT THE SETTLEMENTS ARE NOT THE CAUSE OF THE DEADLOCK. The Americans and Europeans KNOW that the Arabs REFUSE to make peace on any acceptable terms. They are the cause of the deadlock.

  12. YBD:

    If you so confidently KNOW that the Arabs are the cause, why do you get upset when I propose to test the proposition on the Syrian track?

  13. Yakov,
    Relative to the West Bank, the “Arabs” are not the problem. As has been presented numerous times, the PA HAS fulfilled its agreements to establish security, rule of law (particularly relative to Israeli civilians), and reform corruption.

    In that case the settlement are THE problem, the fundamental obstacle to peace objectively, and as indicator of Israeli intent.

  14. Tom-
    Why should we lock ourselves into a possibly difficult situation by going around promising to give up territories in order to “test the intentions of our neighbors”? The Golan Heights is 100% part of Eretz Israel in a historical sense (in a way the Sinai wasn’t). By simply offering to give it up we are saying it really isn’t ours.

    Richard-I completely reject the notion that the Palestinian Authority has lived up to its obligations. I don’t think there has been major changes in the nature of the Authority, rule of law, and continue genocidal Judeophobic propaganda which is dissemenated in the government-controlled media (which is considered a crime against human rights) shows they are not interested in peace.

  15. Name the obligations that the PA has not lived up to.

    The US, European states have all acknowledged that the PA has enforced law to a high standard (no terror from the West Bank in a very very long time, and no armed militias).

    In contrast, there are numerous reports of hooliganism to the point of terror on Palestinian civilians by young settlers, and encouraged by some rabbis.

    It is a low standard that you apply, an irrational one, a cynically strategic one.

  16. YBD,

    The Golan is no more “what is ours” than the province of Transylvania belongs to Hungary, Northern Ireland belongs to Ireland, or Alsace-Lorraine belongs to Germany. Nationalists conveniently choose the point in history where their territorial extension is the greatest as the natural baseline for what is theirs historically. By this standard Syria will forever be in Lebanon and Egypt can claim Palestine.

  17. Richard-
    I am sorry I have to keep repeating this because you don’t seem to get it, but the reason there has been much less terrorism is because the IDF eradicated the terror cells and still operates in the Palestinian cities. Without that, the terror would reappear. The “Dayton forces” are used for internal security only. It is true that the official line in the PA is that “terror at the moment doesn’t serve our purposes because it appears to be counterproductive”, but at the recent FATAH conference it was stated openly that they will return to it when the time is right. You simply can not ignore these facts.

  18. The evidence points to combination, not just the IDF.

    The frequency of terror activity was much higher before Fatah and the PA undertook to police the parts of the West Bank within their jurisdiction to a high level of professionalism and conscientiousness.

    It is relevant to give them credit for the success that they have achieved.

    Relative success is DIFFERENT than failure.

    It is a logic that describes settlers. Rather than generalize “the settlers are hooligans”, it is accurate to state that the few idiots that harass Palestinian civilians are hooligans.

  19. “My son yesterday described to me that Israel’s current policies are examples of racism in practice, and that that was consistent with its original basis of organization and policy.”

    I’ve been hearing this dogma since college–and I’m no spring chicken. lol!

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