Israel and Syria: The Search for a “Risk-Free” Peace
The primary obstacle that stands in the way of peace between Israel and Syria is the problem of "security, both real and imagined. Indeed, the formula of "full withdrawal for full peace" has gained tremendous public notoriety in Israel and Syria since negotiations began three years ago. What has complicated the peace talks is the question of how to fold this formula into an agreement without compromising Israel's security or Syria's sovereignty over the Golan.
Whereas the real security problem, I believe, can and probably will ultimately be resolved, it is Israeli concern over the unforeseen security issues-rooted in both nations' deep-rooted fear, animosity and suspicion-which continues to beleaguer the Negotiations. This is why 1 begin with an analysis of Israeli and Syrian public feelings, sentiments toward peace and the premises on which an agreement can be reached. Next I try to explain where the two governments actually stand in the negotiating process. I then explore the security problems hindering their efforts to reach an agreement.
I conclude by elaborating on the need for direct and active U.S. involvement, including the rationale behind the critical importance of placing U.S. troops on the Golan to monitor the peace. Finally, I offer a framework for an agreement based on information gathered in the course of my travels in the region and through meeting with officials on both sides of the negotiations.
SYRIA AND PEACE: PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
An understanding of the depth of peace sentiments among the Syrian public and what precipitated such feelings after five decades of intense enmity toward Israel can be grasped only in the context of the day-to-day life of the Syrian people. For the average Syrian peace is not a mere slogan. The individual in the street views renewed war as an utter waste that will inflict further suffering, without the prospect of any gain. Most Syrian families, 1 was told, like their counterparts in Israel, having sustained terrible losses in past wars, have no stomach for renewed conflict. Although technically still in a state of war, Syria and Israel have not engaged each other militarily since 1982, and the Syrian public has begun to dream in real terms about the prospects for peace. Socially, Syrians today appear to enjoy a "healthy balance" between the Baath socialist political orientation and the state religion of Islam. Although Islam is predominant and the general outlook of the Syrians is conservative, freedom is expanding without offsetting (he delicate social balance the government is bent on preserving. Syrians are proud that there is hardly any crime or drug addiction, and the homelessness so prevalent in other Arab states, such as Egypt, is virtually nonexistent. Having said that, the strains of two and a half decades of limited political and social freedom are quite apparent. However, the measured liberalization the Syrians have experienced over the past three years has raised expectations that peace with Israel will inadvertently pare the way for more freedom.
Economically, the government's three-year-old economic development program has dramatically changed the economic outlook for the majority of the Syrians. Encouraging private industrial investments, tourism, more liberal import and export policies, as well as the development of light industry has made Syria nearly self-sufficient in food production. Still, despite this remarkable progress, the average Syrian worker in the private or public sector earns only between 4,000-5,000 Syrian lira ($100-$120) per month, making it extremely difficult for a single provider to cope financially. Because most women stay at home to care for the children, men often seek hard-to-get second jobs to supplement their income. For the average Syrian, peace with Israel would open up extensive economic opportunities by expanding the market economy and attracting foreign capital, which are essential to creating sorely needed, well-paying jobs.
Politically, the Syrian public generally refuses to engage openly in any discussion about government policies or mention President Hafiz al-Asad by name, but all Syrians speak freely and with excitement about the prospects of" peace with Israel. On this score they follow their president's position, completely supporting his concept of "full Israeli withdrawal for full peace."
For the vast majority of Syrians, President Asad's characterization of the requirements for peace touches a deep nationalistic and emotional chord. Like the Israelis, the Syrians have become prisoners of a national psychological disposition created over the years to explain the 1967 War and its consequences. Whereas for 27 years successive Israeli governments projected the Golan as indispensable to their country's national security, the Syrians, during the same period, were told by their government that the Golan was captured through a war of aggression that had exacted a heavy national toll. Thus, as desirable as peace has become in the eyes of ordinary Syrians, national pride and honor loom even larger, making it unthinkable for the creation of peace under any circumstances other than total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
During the last three years, the Asad government has embarked upon a low-key public- relations effort orchestrated to present the idea of peace with Israel as a viable option that would insure regional stability and prosperity. Newspapers, television and radio have been given the green light to discuss the advantages of peace.
For a people who have followed the flag patiently and sacrificed much to contemplate peace, recovering their land seems not only natural but indeed imperative. On this score, I left Syria convinced that the public will follow their leader, not because his portrait follows them everywhere they go, but because during the past three years a "peace of the brave" has become more than a slogan.
The Government Position
Syria, like any other country that has lost territory in a war. Regardless of cause and circumstance, wants to recover its land: the Golan. And, like every other country in the region, Syria is seeking Western capital and financial help. But Syrian officials understand that they can gain neither the Golan nor a chance to obtain Western capital unless they unequivocally commit themselves to a peace that results in normal relations with Israel. More importantly the Syrians understand that, in the wake of both the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, the geopolitical conditions in the Middle Hast have dramatically changed. Not only has renewed war with Israel become futile and potentially disastrous but peace has become, as President Asad publicly stated, a strategic choice. The Israel Defense Horce's Annual Intelligence Assessment recently confirmed Syria's commitment to peace as a strategic choice and Asad's determination to extricate Syria from the cycle of war.
Although Syria's president reigns supreme and can make unilateral decisions even on issues of major national implications, he still needs to enlist the support of three other bodies to project a wide political consensus for his policies. These are: the leadership of the Baalh party, which consists of 20 members including Asad, who has one vote: the leadership of the National Hront, which consists of seven parties; and the Syrian parliament. It is important to note that the Bath party controls Asad's power base-the military-and not all party leaders are pleased with Asad's peace overtures. Many have ambitions of their own, and Asad must find ways to pacify them. Even though Asad's decision to make peace with Israel after five decades of enmity and bloodshed carries with it far-reaching advantages, it is also fraught with risks. Asail has to some extent painted himself into a corner by engaging in public diplomacy while widely sharing and promoting his concept of peace. He has raised his peoples' expectations, making it nearly impossible for him to retreat without serious public backlash. "Our efforts to attain peace with Israel under certain terms," said Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Yourself Shakuri, "are designed to minimize that risk and enhance the prospects for progress and regional stability."
Withdrawal from the Golan
Following the end of the Cold War and the death of Syria's dream of strategic parity with Israel, Asad established one particularly important principle as Syria's minimal national requirement from which he did not deviate: Israeli recognition of Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan and its eventual full evacuation to the line of June 4, 1967. Syria views the acceptance of this principle by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as the point of departure from which the terms of normalization between the two countries can be established. Asad made the removal of any and all traces of the 1967 War and its consequences a matter of national honor and the prerequisite for peace. In a recent conversation I had with Walid al-Moualem, Syria's ambassador to the United States, he emphatically stressed his president's position, stating, "No Syrian government could relinquish a single inch of the Golan to Israel and betray the trust of the people."
Although Syrian officials understand Israel's need for a phased withdrawal, they do not accept the logic behind Israel's requirement of four to five years to complete it. They view the Israeli pullout logistically as such, it certainly does not require long to complete rather than in terms of a time framework for the psychological adjustment that the Israeli public needs to make as relations between the two countries normalize. "A prolonged phased withdrawal could complicate matters," said Adid Amin, the deputy in Israel from Labor to Likud, with Likud possibly opposing any substantial pullout from the Golan. Had there not been problems of distrust, Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa would have been correct to suggest that "from a realistic point of view, from a logistical point of view, and because of the small size of the Golan Heights, there is no need for a long period to conclude the withdrawal." It appears, though, that Syria realizes the need for flexibility on the question of phased withdrawal. Although Ambassador al-Moualem, Syria's point man in Washington, speaks of one year, my sense is that Syria will eventually agree to two years or even 30 months, should this become one of the few remaining problems preventing an agreement. In any event. Syria is unlikely to agree to extend Israeli withdrawal to four to five years. Syrian officials further insist on a start and a conclusion, leaving no loose ends.
Although the Syrians are aware of the need for public diplomacy that speaks to the Israeli electorate, they feel strongly that this task falls on the shoulders of the Rabin government. Each government must prepare its own people, and on this score the Syrians blame Rabin for failing to prepare Israelis for full withdrawal. The Israelis, on the other hand, blame the Syrians for being extremely rigid, unable or unwilling to display the human dimension many Israelis deem critical in trying to open a new chapter between the two peoples. Peres and other officials cite President Asad's adamant refusal to meet with Rabin, even in a neutral country. Syrians officials, Peres argues, have yet to show why such an encounter, which could convince many Israelis of Syria's peaceful intent and advance the peace process dramatically, should entail such an unacceptable risk. Syrian officials counter by pointing out that Syria has been engaged in its own public diplomacy. For example, they cite the significance of President Hafiz al-Asad's statement in September 1994, to the Syrian assembly: "Peace has objective requirements," Asad asserted, "and we will meet the objective requirements that are agreed upon." They also cite Foreign Minister Shara's appearance on Israel's second television station, his receiving members of the Arab Israeli delegation in Damascus, as well as many other gestures demonstrating the changing political climate that the Israelis tend to ignore rather than publicize. Moreover, the Syrians insist substantive progress must go hand-in-hand with public diplomacy. Israel has conceded nothing of significance publicly, they argue, to warrant further Syrian reciprocity.
Normalization of Relations
Although the Syrian officials with whom I spoke, including Dr. Michael Wahbi, the director general of the Foreign Office, fully concur that full peace means trade, tourism, cultural and diplomatic exchanges and so forth, they insist that these changes must be introduced slowly and gradually. Following 25 years of social and economic hardship in Syria accompanied by a lack of political freedom, the Syrian government is tearful of the impact that immediate open-ended and normal relations with Israel would have on the Syrian society. Self-preservation does certainly play a major role here; however, there is no fraudulent intent on Syria's part, as Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) would like us to believe. Recent economic liberalization notwithstanding, there exists a fragile social balance that could legitimately be shaken by an uncontrolled influx of tourists and businessmen from the West and. especially. Israel. Thus, as I was repeatedly told. it is not that Asad is against such development. On the contrary, he welcomes foreign investments and trade. But Syria must, as one official put it. "digest the concept of peace first before it exposes the public to the uncertainties inherent in such dramatic changes."
In recent negotiations, both sides reported discernible progress on this critically important issue for the Israelis. Ambassador al-Moualem indicated that the question of normalisation of relations will not he allowed to "prevent us from reaching an agreement as long as Israel accepts the correlation between the timetable of full withdrawal which both sides need to agree upon and the pace of the normalization." In mid-March President Asad notified Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he would allow Israel to maintain a "low-level diplomatic representation" in Damascus even before Israel completes its withdrawal from the Golan. Nevertheless. Syrian officials do not entertain the notion that there can he full diplomatic relations with Israel prior to complete withdrawal. The idea of an Israeli flag flying atop an Israeli embassy in Damascus while Israeli soldiers are still roaming over the Golan is not something any Syrian is ready to contemplate.
Other Territorial Claims
For a long time the Syrians have been vacillating in (heir territorial claims, sometimes demanding the return of "all Arab lands" (including the West Bank and Gaza) in exchange for peace and at other times limiting their demands to the Golan and Southern Lebanon. Responding to a direct question on this issue. Dr. Yousef Shakuri. Syria's deputy foreign minister, was quite definitive: "For many years." he said, "Syria, along with the rest of the Arab states, insisted on the full implementation of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 requiring Israel to return all captured land in the 1967 War in exchange for peace." He then indicated that the Palestinians made their own agreement behind Syria's back, with Israel and the Jordanians, too. have their own deals. Syria neither supported nor objected to these deals, although it does not feel that they were the right moves to achieve a comprehensive peace. The Syrian position now is that both the Palestinians and the Jordanians will have to fend for themselves in the future. Syria's territorial claims are limited to the Golan and Southern Lebanon and will he fully satisfied upon their complete recovery.
Harboring Terrorist Groups
Why Syria provides sanctuary to ten terrorist organizations when such conduct has clearly undermined Syria's interests continues to raise serious questions about its true intent. Also, why does Syria allow the Party of God (Hezbollah) to operate in Southern Lebanon against Israel when peace is the purpose of the negotiations? The Syrian official I spoke with was not amused by the implications of these questions. Those organizations, based in Syria, to whom the government offers hospitality, the official argued, do not engage in any terrorist activity. They represent a constituency of some 300,000 Palestinians who have been displaced. The Syrians do not feel that these groups should he jailed or expelled. Syria has all along championed the cause of the Palestinians and feels it must honor its responsibility to those in its territories. In any case, the Syrian insists, this issue will be resolved once an agreement is reached with Israel, clearly insinuating that, if these groups opt to remain in Syria, they will have no choice but to respect the wishes of their host country.
Although the situation with Hezbollah is different, the future of this organization is tied to Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. "Israel would not have to concern itself with Hezbollah under conditions of peace," said one official. "As the Israelis themselves will attest, Syria always honors its commitments and knows how to keep its borders peaceful." Asad knows that making peace with Israel would require him to take a number of painful steps. Syria must disarm, if not disband, the Hezbollah to facilitate an Israeli-Lebanese agreement. When I further pressed the issue with another official, he initially hesitated and then said, "Look, Syria decided that peace is a strategic choice. Our neighbors (Iran) and those groups to whom we offered hospitality (the terrorist organizations) must accept our choice, which is in our national interest. If they do not accept, then they are not our friends, and we will have to deal with them accordingly."
There is no question that from everything I have gathered, President Asad would like to see peace finalized on his watch. But, although Syria spends 60 percent of its annual budget on the military at the expense of other crucial social and economic projects, the government does not appear to be in any hurry. Moreover, as important as the time element may be, especially in view of the Israeli election in mid-1996, which may bring Likud back to power, time pressure is not likely to soften the Syrian position on the total withdrawal Asad has made the cornerstone of his peace formula. The Syrian people have been conditioned for peace, but they must receive it in small doses to avoid a public backlash that might unravel all that Asad's regime has sought for a generation.
ISRAEL AND PEACE: PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS
Although the overwhelming majority of Israelis want peace with Syria and are weary of the state of constant war, whether they can trust the Syrians looms as large as their quest for peace. This state of uncertainty has always been reflected in Israeli public discourse about the prospect of peace with Syria. Unlike in Syria where the public "follows the leader" and where political debate is generally muted, the Israelis tear down their leaders and the political debate touches on every issue, small or large. Debating national security and domestic politics is the country's pastime. Nothing and nobody is spared scrutiny or criticism. On questions of national security and peace, the public is pulled and pushed by numerous political parties and by members of the coalition government, each claiming to have the answers.
Having done very little to prepare Israeli public opinion for the eventual full withdrawal from the Golan, Rabin has, unwittingly, left the public arena open to a Likud onslaught that has successfully made important inroads in persuading the majority of the public against full withdrawal. Rabin failed to change the position of at least seven Labor Knesset members [MKs] who are on record opposing any kind of withdrawal from the Golan. Furthermore, Rabin was unsuccessful in his repeated efforts to lure the Shas party with six MKs to rejoin his government to bolster his parliamentary margin of safety. For these reasons, Rabin is fearful that committing Israel to a full withdrawal will bring his government down prematurely, a likelihod which, from his vantage point, could torpedo the peace process. Although recent polls confirm that the majority of Israelis oppose a full pullout, once confronted with the grim prospect that there can be no peace with Syria without total withdrawal, a large segment of the public, I found, would appreciate the logic of the argument. Under conditions of normal peace with Syria and with effective security measures in place, the majority of Israelis will realize that Israel can be as secure, if not more secure, without the Golan. Indeed, should Israel refuse to trade the Golan for full peace, a state of war with Syria will be perpetuated and inadvertently transform the strategic heights from a security asset to a security and political liability.
It is only too obvious to the Israelis that they will have no peace with Syria unless the exchange of territory is full and complete. Those Israelis who suggest otherwise, argues Yossi Sarid, Israel's environmental minister, "are dangerously misleading the public. Whether they do so out of shortsightedness or conviction, they are wrong. Through their action, the opponents of withdrawal are paving the way for future senseless wars without any prospect of improving Israel's position to achieve peace on better terms."
Israeli political analysts agree that even a peace agreement with Syria will not prevent the future of the Golan Heights from becoming the most debated campaign issue in the general election scheduled for mid-1996. Not achieving an agreement, however, could seriously derail the Israeli-Syrian negotiating process. For the Likud party, the Golan offers a critical national-security issue. But peace with Syria, with clear and visible security arrangements, could force Likud leaders to accept the agreement. This, of course, will substantially change the dynamics of the election. Rabin's political fortunes would improve, which could propel him or any other Labor candidate for prime minister to victory. In any event, a Labor-led government will be crucial to the implementation of the phased withdrawal from the Golan that is expected to be part of any peace agreement with Syria.
Although Rabin never committed himself publicly to a total withdrawal, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has made it clear that Israel recognizes Syria's sovereignty over the plateau. And, in exchange for peace with normal relations, Israel is willing, Rabin stated to the United Kibbutz Movement some months ago, to evacuate the settlements. For Israel to meet Asad's demands for total withdrawal, Rabin wants the Israeli-Syrian peace to be fashioned after the Egyptian and Jordanian peace agreements. Visible and public acts of reconciliation must occur immediately after the signing of the accords, while Israel's withdrawal will take place in stages over a period of time. The public debate over the future of the Golan focuses on four different, though interrelated, issues: Syria's future political uncertainty, water supplies, the fate of the settlers and, most important, national security. The arguments against withdrawal appear at first to have some validity but, weaving a web of political intrigue, those who oppose withdrawal from the Golan have been, at best, disingenuous in their portrayal of the facts.
Future Syrian Instability
Israelis who oppose full withdrawal do have some legitimate concerns about the potential for political instability in the post-Asad period. The question of whether or not Asad's successor will adhere to agreements made in the name of his government is also a valid one. "Holding onto the Golan because of Syrian political unpredictability," argues Yossi Sarid, "is like putting on blinders and then complaining about not being able to see." Based on Israel's experience with Asad since the disengagement agreement of 1974, Deputy Foreign Minister Beilin contends, "There is good reason to believe that his successor will, too, follow scrupulously an accord with Israel." Indeed, what will make that outcome more likely is if the new agreement is fair and equitable. Successive leaders on both sides will not only need to justify such an accord, they will also have vested interests in its preservation. It is an accepted axiom nowadays that no Syrian leader could defend only a partial Israeli withdrawal in exchange for "a normal and comprehensive peace," and no Israeli leader could justify full withdrawal for anything less than full peace.
The Israeli concerns over future Syrian political instability explain why Israel seeks a phased pullout over a minimum period of three to four years while beginning the normalization of relations immediately after signing the agreement. The Israelis maintain that this is particularly crucial because of Syria's past recalcitrant behavior. "A country which has extolled for four decades the virtues of Israel's destruction," said Haifa University professor Sami Smooha, "obviously gives rise to the Israeli public's distrust." Every Israeli government since 1967 has made the plateau synonymous with Israel's national security. Thus Israelis are simply not prepared for a quantum leap; they need time to make the psychological transition. This also explains why Rabin in-sists on a peace with normal relations. "Peace which is made between the people that includes trade, cultural exchanges, tourism, etc.," Rabin has said repeatedly, "would strike deep roots, developing mu-tual public interest in its continuing success, and thus will endure."
Additionally, whereas peace provides the ultimate security, Israel will still maintain a formidable military power along with multiple safety valves and security arrangements that will make a reversal counterproductive and hence unlikely. Future Syrian leaders, be they despots or democratically elected officials, would have to be insane to trade peace and prosperity for a military adventure that would most certainly destroy their country. In any event, the potential for the rise of a despot who rejects the peace exists in Egypt and Jordan too. "This possibility did not prevent Israel from making peace with these two states," said Shimon Peres, "but the protagonists against withdrawal from Syria conveniently forget that."
Opponents to the withdrawal claim that the Golan is an important water source and so cannot be abandoned. "The water argu-ment, as cogent as it may be," an Israeli official told me, "does not really hold water." For 19 years before the capture of the Golan, Israel somehow managed without the Golan's water. This is not to suggest that Israel should stop seeking an equitable distribution of that water. As suggested by a Syrian official, "Under conditions of peace a formula would be found. After all, it is this sort of thing that symbolizes cooperation and warm peace."
The Future of the Settlers
Many Israelis who oppose withdrawal invoke the presence of Jewish settlers on the Golan as a reason not to relinquish the plateau. Knesset member Avigdor Kahalani, who heads a rebellious group of seven Labor MKs opposed to Israeli withdrawal, insists that the "13,000 Jewish residents on the Golan represent the real pioneers of the state, and it is inconceivable that suddenly they should be evacuated." As the general who blunted the Syrian advance in the 1973 war, Kahalani appears to have a keen understanding of the strategic value of the Golan and the plight of the settlers.
But Kahalani must answer this question: Should Israel forfeit a historic opportunity for a comprehensive peace only so that the Golan's residents might remain there, subjecting the whole country to a perpetual state of war? As pioneers, the settlers have already played a critical role on behalf of their country in convincing the Syrians that only genuine peace might remove them from the Golan. As painful and heartbreaking as their evacuation will be, it must be viewed in the context of other alternatives.
It is hypocritical to merely suggest that "we have to stand by our obligations to the public and find a way to achieve peace, but also remain here" (on the Golan). How, one might ask. does Kahalani propose to do that? It is easy to say we must "find a way," hut neither he nor the opposition Likud leader. Benjamin Netanyahu. has advaneed any plausible alternative. Kahin was eorreet when he bluntly stated that it is a "deception to argue that Israel can have peaee with Syria while holding onto the entire Golan Heights." And "without an agreement with Syria." Peres has argued, "peace would he Hawed, detective and lame."
For Israel, nevertheless, the issues of the settlements and the future of the settlers are very emotional and must be dealt with gingerly. Kabin needs time, a minimum two years, to create the political and psychological conditions necessary to complete the transfer of settlers without precipitating a major domestic crisis. Otherwise, the opposition political panics will he more than eager to capitalize on the inevitable public anxiety and torpedo the whole agreement.
The Golan as Strategic Territory
As important as the three previous issues are in considering the future of the Golan. the argument that the Golan is vital to Israels security looms largest on the domestic political horizon. For 19 years (1948-67), most Israelis believe, Syrian forces bombarded Israel from the Golan. causing havoc to the villages and townships in the valley below. From this perspective, the Golan provides the buffer the Israelis feel they need to prevent the Syrians from repeating their violent attacks. The argument that today's advanced weapons (missiles and supersonic bombers) would render the Golan inconsequential is invalid. The Syrians would still need the infantry to consolidate any military gain resulting from massive air or missile attacks. The Gulf War offers the clear example that regardless of how devastating the allied missile and aerial attacks on Baghdad and other Iraqi targets were the infantry was still necessary to chase the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The 1973 War showed that the Golan as a buffer zone afforded Israel the time to mobilize forces as well as the strategic advantage needed to stop the advancing Syrian army.
These arguments only remain valid. Israelis from the Left argue, as long as Syria is unwilling to make peace. However, under many Israeli army generals, including the former chief of the General Staff, Don Shomron. attest: "The Golan becomes much less relevant." In fact, if Syria is ready and willing to deliver the peaee that Israel wants. and the Israelis refuse to offer full withdrawal in return, the Golan will no longer he a security asset hut a liability. Indeed, what incentive would the Syrians have to keep the status quo of no peace and no war? Another war-if only to destabilize the political climate and possibly wreck Israel's peace efforts with the Palestinians and Jordan- will he too tempting and thus probably only a matter of time.
These arguments do not mitigate Israel's genuine security concerns. It is a mistake to suggest, however, that only the retention of the Golan provides Israel with ultimate security guarantees. According to Israeli and Syrian diplomatic sources, security arrangements have been the subject ot continuing discussion for the last three years. Because of genuine national security concerns and a public equating of its national security with the Golan. Prime Minister Rahin has been trying to negotiate a set of security measures to compensate for withdrawal. One such important measure is the Israeli demand to keep an early-warning station on Mount Hennon.
Early Warning Stations
Israel's demand to maintain early-warning stations on the Golan Heights following the withdrawal of its forces and Syria's refusal to meet these demands is an issue that has to do much more with the Israeli and Syrian national psyches than with real security considerations.
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 was achieved and national security was not compromised. In addition, the Israelis feel that they, not the Syrians, are on the giving end. Scores of groups and several states 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 critical strategic territory and, consequently, can trust only those security measures over which direct and total control can be exercised. Therefore, maintaining two to three early-warning stations, Israeli officials insist, represents a minimal requirement 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 will provide the ultimate security guarantees. Now that the Rabin government has basically acceded to 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.
A Syrian diplomat involved in the negotiations rejects such an Israeli requirement, arguing that (a) 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"; (b) tactically, an early-warning station could be used for other purposes, which could undermine the security of his country; and (c) the need for supplies will create a logistical problem the Syrians simply are unwilling to put up with.
Whereas these are all legitimate reasons, the most compelling objection is that for the Syrians 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," said a Syrian diplomat, "and a stigma to our national pride."
Can the psychological barrier that has bedeviled the negotiations be removed, and can either country compromise on an issue so deeply embedded in its national psyche? 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 the 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 United States to exert a more concerted effort on the other. The United States is in a position to induce both sides to concede on issues that are not as critical as they appear to their national security. 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 following:
(a) The hastening of the normalization of relations including trade, tourism and other exchanges to take place as soon as a peace agreement is signed, which Israel considers paramount in developing people-to-people relationships, (b) The creation of a joint Israeli-Syrian-American team to conduct on-location verification to insure compliance. And (c) the stationing of American troops on the Golan to monitor the agreement. Israel is actively seeking this, and Syria appears to be open to the idea. Obviously this must be preceded by the resumption of the military talks, which the Syrians have broken, in order to restore Israel's confidence in the negotiating process.
In addition, the United States could provide Israel, in the context of their bilateral strategic agreement, access to high-resolution, electro-optic photos, obtainable through U.S. 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 sophisticated 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, other than viable alternatives to early-warning stations, normalization of relations immediately following an agreement is critical to mitigate the public's obsession with national security.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Although Israel and Syria are extremely concerned over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-nuclear, biological and chemical-they have apparently agreed not to make a resolution of this complex issue as a precondition for achieving a peace agreement.
Publicly the Syrians have expressed serious concerns over what is widely believed to be Israel's possession of a large stockpile of nuclear weapons. In a speech at the United Nations to the international conference on the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) held in April, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa insisted that the Arab states cannot possibly be "required to pass under silence Israel's-the only nuclear power in the region-refusal to accede to the treaty while the Arab states are asked to extend it unconditionally and indefinitely." He went on to state, "Therefore Syria cannot agree to the extension of the NPT unless Israel accedes to the treaty and subjects its nuclear installations to international inspection."
Following intense negotiations Syria finally agreed to a new wording stipulating that the Arab-Israeli peace process must be pursued as one of several roads toward making the Middle East free of nuclear weapons. The NPT treaty was subsequently adopted by consensus to avoid a vote that might have fallen short of unanimity.
While Israel has expressed a similar anxiety about Syria's possession of chemical and biological weapons, Israel maintains its position of ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying its possession of a nuclear arsenal. Rabin has made it clear that his country supports both the principle of nonproliferation and the indefinite extension of the treaty. Israel insists, however, that it would not sign the NPT unless a comprehensive peace has first been achieved. Israel further maintains that it shares with Egypt and Syria the goal of establishing a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone, but that the danger posed by hostile countries in the region-especially Iran, Iraq and Libya-must largely be removed before substantive talks could begin.
The problems associated with both countries' possession of WMD are not limited to their bilateral conflict. There are regional strategic implications. Both Israel and Syria consider Iraq an ardent foe and, as stated earlier, for Israel, Iran is an archenemy representing the greatest future threat to its security. For these reasons, officials from both sides recognize that discussion of these weapons, as crucial as it may be, must be tackled outside the current negotiating framework. Once an agreement has been attained on all other issues, particularly total withdrawal and normalization of relations, a regional security committee will be formed with full U.S. participation to review the entire spectrum of these weapons. The objective will be to free the Middle East of all WMD.
THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES
The security issue will continue to be-devil Israeli-Syrian negotiations unless the United States projects itself forcefully into the debate. The Clinton administration should focus on this single issue, which has prevented Israel and Syria from reaching an agreement. The United States must now shift gears and play a much more direct role than in the past in developing a security framework acceptable to both sides.
Historically, no Israeli-Syrian agreement has been achieved without active American involvement. The Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement of 1974 and the ending of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982 offer two vivid examples. In relation to Israel's future security, America's role becomes even more critical. There is no power the Israelis trust that is better suited or more strategically situated than the United States to become part of the solution. Moreover, U.S. involvement is very much consistent with its long-term strategic interests in the region. Although Israel and Syria are each asking the United States to exert a more concerted effort on the other, America must persuade both sides to concede on issues that are not as critical to their national security as they appear. The Israelis must be persuaded to accept such security arrangements as do not require an Israeli presence on Syrian territory, a highly sensitive issue that touches upon Syrians' national pride. Meanwhile, the United States needs to persuade Syria to accept other measures to augment Israel's security, including air surveillance and possibly the creation of a joint Israeli-Syrian-American team to conduct on-site verification.
Perhaps the most important security measure that only the United States can undertake, one that can mitigate the security problem between Israel and Syria, is the stationing of American troops on the Golan to monitor the agreement. Israel is actively seeking such an American involvement, and while Syria prefers U.N. troops, it remains open to the idea. The U.S. Congress should give the matter full consideration and support.
The Case for U.S. Troops on the Golan
A comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab States can be achieved only with Syria's full participation. Such a peace will considerably enhance the regional stability that is in the best strategic interest of the United States. The four counterindications for stationing American GIs in what opponents of the plan term a "high risk area" are easily rebutted.
1. Opponents contend that U.S. troops will become targets of terrorist attempts to undermine the peace. They cite what happened to the U.S. Marines in Lebanon as an example of the troops' vulnerability. However, the two situations are different, both in substance and in objective. In the Lebanon case, American troops were invited by Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, who by seeking American military support to protect the Christian Maronite community, thrust our Marines into a raging civil war. Nearly all the warring factions opposed the American presence. Syria, which was the main, though indirect player, also wanted the Americans out. On the Golan, however, American troops would be monitoring the borders following a peace agreement that will have been fully agreed upon by the disputants. Syria's behavior since the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel provides clear evidence of its leaders' ability to keep the borders peaceful and safe once they decide it is in their best interest.
Perhaps even more important, America's decision to place troops on the Golan is a strategic decision and must be calculated also on the basis of what is its best strategic interest in the Middle East. Whether some Americans will risk their lives for their country while serving there must be viewed as part and parcel of being soldiers on active duty. The American people should be aware of their GIs' missions and objectives and the risks involved. Furthermore, what is the effectiveness of our armed forces if they cannot be sent on any mission unless it is absolutely safe, even if national interest is at stake? The United States dispatched more than 500,000 soldiers to the Gulf to protect our interests and those of our allies. It will take only 1,000 troops to serve the cause of a comprehensive peace that might have as much if not more impact on our overall strategic interests in the Middle East.
2. Opponents also argue that placing American troops on the Golan will force the United States to become neutral rather than remaining Israel's ally. By what logic will the U.S.-Israeli alliance be endangered? Stationing American troops in the Sinai following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty did not undermine that alliance. As monitors, the American officers do not take sides, they simply report to their commanders any violations, which are subsequently taken up with the respective governments. If anything has changed since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, it is that the U.S.-Israeli alliance has grown stronger. In fact, their strategic cooperation agreement was signed a few years after the Camp David accords.
The Gulf War provided further evidence of U.S. ability to maintain close ties with and defend two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, even though they were technically at war with each other. Having no illusions about the U.S. special relations with Israel, Syrian officials repeatedly told me on a recent visit to Syria that they view the stationing of American troops on the Golan as a concession to Israel. But they will entertain the idea should it become imperative for convincing the Israeli public to give up the Golan.
3. Opponents also fear that Israel's freedom to take unilateral action will be compromised, leaving it unable to initiate a preemptive strike without U.S. permission. Under such conditions, the argument goes Israel will lose one of its greatest advantages, which has kept its enemies at bay over the years. Israel's inability to strike back at Iraq during the Gulf War is cited as evidence of such a future limitation. Because of the U.S. interest in and friendship with many Arab states, it should be noted that even today Israel is not totally free to strike at any Arab country at will. But if Israel's national security were clearly endangered, it would probably not hesitate to strike (nor has it ever). Moreover, peace with Syria and by extension with Lebanon, will dramatically dimmish, if not eliminate, the Israeli need to strike at any targets in these two countries. No treaty or alliance supersedes the right to self-defense, but if and when Israeli borders are violated, there will exist at least a third party to mediate the conflict before it escalates.
Finally, it is rather foolhardy to argue, as New York Times columnist William Safire does, that American admiration for Israel's military self-reliance will be replaced by resentment when our troops risk their lives protecting Israel's borders. It should be noted that the mission of American troops is to monitor, not to defend, the borders. U.S.-Israeli special relations go back to the time when Israel was created. Yes, there is the moral commitment to Israel's survival, and certainly Israel's ability to win stunning military victories mesmerized the American public. But the U.S. special relationship with Israel is sustained by a lesser-known factor: Israel's critical role in the U.S. strategic calculations in the Middle East. Israel is a strategic ally on which the United States can rely. It is this factor that justifies American military and economic assistance to the tune of $3 billion annually. Obviously, this sum of money is not given to Israel because of American admiration. As long as the American public understands and supports the limited nature, yet far-reaching implications of the mission, the U.S.-Israeli relationship will not go up or down because an American GI is hurt on the Golan.
As the United States begins to actively assess the possibility of stationing troops on the Golan as a part of the final agreement, both Syria and Israel are trying to establish parameters to favor their respective positions. Syria, as the host country, would like to have the final say as to the scope and the duration of the American stay. Israel, on the other hand, wants the removal, expansion or redeployment of the American troops to be accomplished only by trilateral consent. Officials on both sides seem to indicate, however, that in the end an arrangement very similar to the one existing between Israel and Egypt on the Suez Canal will eventually be established on the Golan. There an all-American troop contingency operates under the U.N. flag, and any changes or modifications have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where the United States enjoys a veto power.
THE PROSPECTS FOR AN AGREEMENT
Both Asad and Rabin have been guided by pressing domestic political considerations. The present discord between Israel and Syria no longer concerns the core formula of "full withdrawal for full peace." It is about how the two governments will deliver an agreement based on such a formula without compromising on issues deemed vital to their national interests. Major General Uri Sagui, head of Israeli Army Intelligence, shares this assessment. Both Israel and Syria seem to finally understand each other's minimal requirements and are prepared to make dramatic moves to close the gaps, provided the United States steps in as a full partner. In a nutshell, this translates to active American involvement in all phases and facets of the agreement, especially in all security arrangements. Time is running out. Future events could adversely change the political landscape. The Israeli election, scheduled for mid-1996, has already shifted the focus of the Rabin government. In fact, Rabin himself recently asserted that the most important thing is to win the next election, implying that this meant even at the expense of stalemate in the negotiations. The other concern, as put by Ambassador al-Moualem, "is the loss of momentum which could leave both the Israeli and Syrian public disillusioned with the prospects for peace." The continuing violence by extremist Palestinians against Israelis is further aggravating the already tense situation, making the Israeli public weary of the whole peace process.
Despite the ups and downs in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, an important step forward was made at the end of May, when Syria abandoned its demand that the two countries pull their troops back an equal distance from the Golan. In addition, slow but steady progress seems to have been made on the following matters.
o It appears that Israel and Syria will be willing to accept a phased withdrawal over a two-year period and possibly for up to 30 months. o During this period the settlers will be relocated to Israel proper. o As Israel implements the first phased withdrawal the process of normalization of relations between the two countries will begin. The progress of normalization will be consistent with the agreed-upon schedule of Israeli withdrawal. o A low-level diplomatic representation will be established between the two countries even before Israel completes its withdrawal. o Following the Israeli full withdrawal, the Golan will remain demilitarized with the exception of a Syrian police force for internal security. o All security arrangements will be ready for implementation the moment the peace agreement becomes effective. o Upon completion of the Israeli withdrawal, full diplomatic relations (ambassadorial level) will be established between the two nations. o Learning from the lesson of the Oslo accord, Syria and Israel apparently have agreed to produce a full and comprehensive agreement, not one subject to future negotiations, as long as both parties scrupulously live up to the last detail and adhere to a predetermined schedule.
Besides these principal points, Asad wants Israel to meet his basic demands, including: (a) an early declaration from Rabin acknowledging Syrian sovereignty over the Golan to be followed by a formal abroga-tion of the annexation of the Golan by Israel; (b) recognition of Syria's international borders as of June 4, 1967; (c) Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and (d) respect for the Syrian-Lebanese special relationship. In addition, he wants the United States to remove Syria's name from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, an act that will open the door for American and European financial help, investments, loans and commerce. Naturally, Asad also wants U.S. political support of Syria's special and permanent role in the region, especially in Lebanon.
For Israel, the primary requirement is for short- and long-term security guarantees. Other than comprehensive security arrange-ments in full partnership with the United States, Israel views the process of normalization of relations as paramount in developing people-to-people relationships. For the Israelis, this is the cornerstone of peace with Syria, no less relevant to Israel's long-term security than any other security arrangement. On this score, the Syrians will have to be considerably more forthcoming. In addition, Israel still insists that the international borders, which give Israel some territorial advantage, should constitute the final borders and not the June 4 ceasefire lines. Finally, Israel too may turn to the United States for more assistance, especially military assistance in the development of joint military projects and coproduction of additional military equipment. Further augmentation of the U.S.-Israeli strategic agreement seems also to be mutually desirable. In particular, Israel would ask the United States for access to high-resolution electro-optic photos, as well as high-quality communications monitoring to compensate for the early-warning stations.
Once a comprehensive agreement is achieved with all the security measures clearly articulated to allay the Israelis' main concerns, Rabin can then present it to the public on the eve of the Israeli elections sometime toward the end of this fall. In any event, it will probably take until that time before an agreement can be concluded. Under these circumstances Rabin need not call for (as he promised and to which Syria objects) a special referendum on the agreement. He can fulfill his promise by making the proposed peace agreement with Syria the basis of his platform for his re-election campaign. Should a vote of no-confidence bring down his government before the election, he will at least have put on the table a historic agreement that the Israelis will examine more carefully before they rush to vote for the opposition.
Under the worst possible scenarios, Rabin could lose the election and Likud regain power. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister will then be faced with the agreement. How would Netanyahu or any other prime minister deal with a peace agreement that (a) meets Israel's immediate future national-security requirements, (b) offers normal relations with Syria, (c) provides a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and (d) is fully endorsed by the United States, which no Israeli government could afford to ignore? As prime minister, Netanyahu, like his predecessors, would quickly learn that no Syrian leader can relinquish a single inch of territory and expect the agreement to endure. Also, Syria is not likely to allow any real or imagined symbols of occupation to be left behind, such as early-warning stations, following the Israeli withdrawal. That much the Israeli negotiators have learned since the arduous negotiations with Syria began more than three years ago. Those Israelis who profess that they can exact a better deal from Syria than full and normal peace with security are dangerously misleading the public and themselves. As Foreign Minister Peres recently stated: "The price of peace is the same price we paid with Egypt….We have to tell the truth. Staying on the Golan Heights means giving up peace."
Even under the best of circumstances, however, the peace will not be a "risk-free peace" for either Israel or Syria. While Israel's search for absolute security is perfectly understandable it may be unattainable by virtue of the requirement of eventual Israeli withdrawal from the entire strategic Heights. And in Syria officials admit that, as desirable as the peace may be, Israel remains the region's military superpower. This is inherently fraught with some risks. But some elements of mutual vulnerability will prove to be useful. Indeed, as was once observed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "Attaining absolute security by one side will inescapably render its counterpart absolutely insecure, which is a recipe for instability."
Once an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement is concluded, however, the agreement will assume a life of its own and will have effectively ended the Arab-Israeli conflict. The agreement will render a major blow to extremist Islamic fundamentalist groups. Peace will further isolate Iran and stifle left-wing rejectionist Arab factions who have looked to Syria for support. Finally, the peace agreement will appreciably enhance regional stability and, as a result, dramatically change the economic and security outlook of the entire region.