All Writings
May 12, 1993

Israel and Syria Search For Peace

Exchanging territory for peace has not always provided the basis for Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. In fact, for more than two decades Syria has demanded Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights without offering peace in return, and Israel has sought full peace with Syria without ceding the entire Golan. Both parties have accepted the principle for exchanging territory for peace based on UN Resolution 242, but how much territory for what kind of peace remains at an impasse. Since Israel captured the Golan in 1967, both Labor and Likud-led governments have defined the Golan as strategically critical to Israeli defense.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has been a staunch advocate of the Golan settlements policy, which he defines as security settlements. Mr. Rabin now faces the extremely difficult task of convincing the Israelis to exchange the Golan for peace. Rabin cannot commit himself to total or near-total withdrawal without first achieving "full peace" – with diplomatic relations, open borders, trade, etc., which he could present to the Israeli public as the ultimate security objective.

Anticipating some territorial concessions, the Israeli settlers on the Golan are already bracing themselves for a major confrontation with the government. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, on the other hand, has staked his political fortunes on the recovery of every inch of the Golan without offering "full peace" explicitly. The Golan has historically been a Syrian territory; relinquishing even a small part of it to Israel would be seen by Syrians as submission to Israel's conquest, symbolizing Syrian defeat in 1967. Syria will reject any concession in which its national honor is implicated. Therefore, Syrian sovereignty over the Heights is simply not negotiable. President Assad insists that the Golan must be treated like the Sinai, which was returned in its entirety to Egypt in exchange for peace. What has further complicated the Israeli-Syrian negotiations is Rabin's insistence that peace with Syria stand on its own irrespective of the negotiating outcome with the Palestinians or the Jordanians.

Having championed Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause for more than two decades, Assad feels compelled to seek concurrent and concrete agreements between Israel and all confrontational Arab states, including the Palestinians. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was criticized for making peace, and even more so for making a separate peace with Israel. Syrian officials claim that they are ready to negotiate separately and reach a separate agreement, but Assad will not sign a separate peace and sub ject himself not only to Arab criticism, but also to the wrath of the Islamic fundamentalists and other extremists from the left who oppose peace with Israel under any circumstances. There is one basic requisite for Israeli-Syrian peace: full peace for total withdrawal. Israel will not return all of the Golan without full peace and Syria could not offer full peace without the return of the entire Golan.

Rabin and Assad must now find a way not only to accommodate each other's requirements, but also to change Israeli and Syrian public opinion, which has been molded by their respective leaders to resist the principle of exchanging the entire Golan for full peace. Israeli military experts confirm that the Golan serves as an important strategic asset. Israel's ultimate national security, however, does not depend on territory, but on full reconciliation and on maintaining a military power second to none in the region. The Israelis must grasp the opportunity. Rabin has yet to concede on this point, insisting on only partial withdrawal from the Golan. The Syrians, too, must come to the inevitable conclusion that to recover all of the Golan they must offer full peace t o alleviate Israel's security concerns and to allow the Israelis to withdraw over an extended period. Leasing the Golan to Israel for 40 to 50 years, after it has been officially restored to Syrian sovereignty, remains a viable option that Syria should seriously consider.

The Israel-Syrian negotiating process has reached a very delicate stage. The modalities of Israeli withdrawal, timetable, and measures undertaken to insure Israel's security and to build mutual confidence can all be negotiated. However, the principles of eventual but total Israeli withdrawal in return for full and a comprehensive peace will not change. The sooner Israel and Syria accept this reality the sooner they could begin the process of concluding a peace agreement. The United States must persuade b oth the Israelis and Syrians that their respective demands represent national imperatives without which neither Rabin nor Assad can deliver the required concessions to make peace.