All Writings
August 14, 1995

The Psychological Barriers to Israeli-Syrian Peace

Israel demands early warning stations on the Golan Heights following the withdrawal of its forces. Syria refuses to meet these demands. While these positions rest officially on security considerations, they are rooted deep in the national psyches of both Israel and Syria.

Only the United States, as chief mediator, has the power and vested interests to offer an acceptable alternative to break the Israeli-Syrian impasse. Israel maintains that total withdrawal from the Golan is a dramatic move that can be justified only if the government can show that, in exchange, full peace will be achieved and national security will not be compromised.

In addition, Israelis feel that they, not the Syrians, are on the giving end. Scores of groups and several nations are sworn to the destruction of Israel, and only time can tell how the Israeli-Syrian peace will fare. Once the Golan is given back, Israel will have lost a critically strategic territory and, consequently, can trust only those security measures over which it has direct and total control. Therefore, maintaining two to three early warning stations, Israeli officials insist, represents the minimum needed to meet its national security objectives.

Although these are genuine security concerns that can partly be addressed by early warning stations, the value of these stations is more symbolic than real. For nearly three decades the Israeli public has been told by successive governments that the Golan was critical to the country' s national security and that only an Israeli presence on the plateau can guarantee security.

Now that the Rabin government has basically conceded the formula of "full peace for full withdrawal," maintaining some kind of Israeli presence in the form of early warning stations would presumably offer the Israeli public the assurances it needs. Syrian diplomat involved in the negotiations, however, has rejected such an Israeli requirement with the argument that:
* No security arrangement should compromise the territorial integrity of either side. "We do not want to have a Syrian early warning station in Israel, and we will not allow an Israeli one on our territory," he said.
* Tactically, an early warning station could be used for other purposes that could undermine Syria's security.
* The need for supplies will create a logistical problem that the Syrians simply are unwilling to put up with.

These are all legitimate reasons, but the most compelling Syrian objection is that an Israeli warning station on Mount Hermon, which can be seen from dozens of miles away, is a symbol of occupation and a permanent reminder of national humiliation. The Syrian in the street speaks with enthusiasm about the prospect of peace with Israel and in the same breath expresses repugnance at the idea of an Israeli presence on the Golan. "This would be the height of insult to our dignity as a people and a stigma to our national pride," a Syrian diplomat said.

Can the psychological barrier that has bedeviled the negotiations be removed, and can either or both countries compromise on an issue so deeply imbedded in their national psyches? I seriously doubt that the Syrians will ever allow what they term a "symbol of national disgrace" to remain on the Golan. I have been told time and again by Syrian officials that this is one issue over which Syria will be prepared to abandon peace negotiations altogether. For Israel, there may not be a real substitute for the psychological comfort that an Israeli presence on the Golan provides. But military experts agree that there are several viable alternatives to the early warning stations.

Israel and Syria are each asking the US to exert more pressure on the other. The US is in a position to induce both sides to compromise on issues that are not as critical to national security as they appear. The Israelis, I believe, can be persuaded to accept security arrangements that do not require an Israeli presence on Syrian territory, and in return the Syrians could be coaxed into accepting other measures to demonstrate their good intentions. These include:
* The hastening of the normalization of relations including trade, tourism, and other exchanges to take place as soon as a peace agreement is signed. Israel considers this paramount in developing people-to-people relationships.
* The creation of a joint Israeli-Syrian-American team to conduct on-location verification to insure compliance.
* The stationing of American troops on the Golan to monitor an agreement. Obviously this must be preceded by the resumption of the military talks that the Syrians have broken off, in order to restore Israel's confidence in the negotiating process.

In addition, the US could provide Israel, in the context of their bilateral strategic agreement, access to high-resolution, electro-optic photos, attainable through US satellites, as well as high-quality communications monitoring. Access to such information and technology will further augment Israel's gathering of "real time" data on Syria, Iraq, and Iran through its own military spy satellite, which was successfully launched only a few months ago. The Syrians admit that although they are unhappy with Israel's possession of such equipment, they consider the satellites less intrusive.

In the end both Israel and Syria know that they have to come to grips with the real issue. For Syria, any type of Israeli presence is a symbol of occupation the Syrians must erase from their national memory. And for Israel, normalization of relations immediately following an agreement is critical to mitigate the public's obsession with national security.

It is unlikely that Israel and Syria will come to terms on their own without US prodding and direct involvement. Whatever the case, the US can ill afford to do less in a region where the stakes are so high and where the US short- and long-term strategic interests are so vital.