Israeli-Syrian Peace Possible And Timely
Peace between Israel and Syria is now more possible than ever because of two factors: One is that most of the issues separating the two adversaries were resolved during their peace negotiations in 2000. The second is that both sides and the United States–whose role remains critical–need a breakthrough in light of the increasingly worsening conditions in the Middle East.
Recent proposals by each side concerning the conditions for the resumption of talks, although rebuffed by the other party, suggest, according to official sources, that Syria's President Asad and Israel's Prime Minister Sharon are more serious about the prospects for peace now than at any time since each assumed power. Although the requirements for peace may have not changed dramatically in the last three years, many geopolitical changes have swept the region during this time, most critically, the war in Iraq and its consequences and the tragic repercussions of the second Intifadah, both creating more compelling reasons and favorable conditions for peace.
For Syria, the prerequisite for a comprehensive peace remains unchanged–the return of the entire Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel and Syria came very close to agreement in 2000. Negotiations collapsed over Syria's insistence on an Israeli withdrawal to the cease-fire line of June 4, 1967. But Israel's former prime minister Barak offered the border established by international mandate in 1923, giving Israel a few hundred feet of strategic territorial depth on a higher plateau, extending north and south along the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Now Asad wants to resume negotiations where they left off in 2000, although Sharon seeks to start new talks with no preconditions. These differences are not insurmountable.
Most of the critical issues that separated Israel and Syria before 2000 related to security. These issues were essentially settled during arduous, on-and-off negotiations over the six years prior to 2000. They included demilitarization of the Golan, as shown by the thinning out of the Israeli forces, the establishment of a peace of reconciliation occurring in stages alongside Israel's phased withdrawal, and the relocation of the settlers which is one of the most emotionally charged issues. Once that was completed a full diplomatic relations will then be established. Having maintained direct contact with the Israeli and Syrian negotiators throughout that period, I know with absolute surety that in 2000 peace was almost within grasp.
For Israel today the benefits of such a peace are even more tangible. An agreement with Syria will break the back of several Palestinian militant groups that have found refuge in Syria, lead to the disarming of Hizbullah, and produce instant peace with Lebanon. Peace will also lessen Israel's security burdens and risks in the north while allowing it to open up a new market for Israeli goods at a time when its economy is in dire straits as a result of the Intifadah. Peace will also transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving the Palestinians to their own devices while increasing the pressure on their leadership to end terrorism by finally disarming Hamas and Jihad. And peace will encourage many other Arab States to open diplomatic relations with Israel. Finally, it will force a change for the better in Iran's attitudes toward Israel because Iran will lose the last vestige of its influence in Lebanon, an influence Iran has maintained through Hizbullah.
For Syria, too, there has never been a better time to seek peace with Israel. Syria finds itself surrounded by unfriendly or outright enemy states; Turkey in the north, Iraq, occupied by the U.S. forces in the east, Jordan in the south, and Israel in the southeast. The Syrian economy is stagnating with little or no prospect for short- or long-term improvement. Syria desperately needs capital investment, industrialization, and expanded trade. And it remains on the U.S Department of State's list of states that sponsor terrorism; only peace with Israel will cause Syria to be removed from that list which has, for all intents and purposes, frozen all American investment there and prevented any other meaningful relation between the two countries. Many Syrians, especially the young, are growing increasingly restless with the lack of business opportunities and professional advancements due to the absence of the long-promised modernization. Finally, the military, though large, and consuming more than 45 percent of its annual budget, is equipped with outdated Soviet military hardware, much of it in disrepair, leaving Syria with no military option in recovering the Golan.
An Israeli-Syrian peace will benefit the United States as well by ushering in much of the regional transformation the Bush administration has hoped for in the Middle East. Syria has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in any regional political and military realignment. Thus, the quicker the administration facilitates peace between Israel and Syria, the quicker we can influence events throughout the Middle East. Specifically, such a peace will help revive Mr. Bush's road map, breathe new life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and thus help end nearly six decades of conflict that has inflamed the region and in the process consumed a tremendous amount of America's energy and resources. The infiltration of anti-American insurgents into Iraq from Syria will also virtually stop, and this will permit us to work far more closely with Syrian authorities in the war on terrorism. And such a peace will further inhibit the spread of weapons of mass destruction while consolidating our position in the Middle East, giving Iran no choice but to conform to the new reality. The Bush administration which is mired in Iraq must not lose this historic opportunity to facilitate an Israeli-Syria peace, even if it means exerting extreme pressure on either side or both.
Looking at the current situation in the region and these advantages that I've outlined, I can't imagine more conducive circumstances for moving toward peace. I estimate a peace can be reached within six months. Not only have most of the critical issues already been negotiated at arms length, but no matter how much longer the two parties wait, they cannot and will not be able to improve their position. The return of the entire Golan in return for a comprehensive peace is not a mere slogan. Sharon must realize that however badly Syria needs peace no Syrian leader, let alone Bashar Asad, who must honor his father's legacy, can give up an inch of the Golan and survive even a single day. (An Israeli withdrawal to the international border can still be construed as a full withdrawal.) As for the Israelis, they can never hope for a comprehensive and warm peace with Syria without relinquishing the Heights. It peace not territory that ultimately provides Israel with the security it seeks. Both powers of course must develop a vested interest in a peace agreement. It is important then to recall that past agreements between Israel and Egypt and Jordan were based on the same principle of territory for peace as specifically enunciated in UN resolution 242.
Whether the final borders will eventually be drawn along the 1967 cease-fire line or the 1923 border, the total difference in land mass between the two is only seven-square miles. Leaders of vision and wisdom must find a formula both sides can live with and so give their peoples the gift of peace for which nearly three generations have yearned.