Opinion | Columnists

Israel and Syria flirt with peace

Israel is currently wooing Syria with the hesitant blessing of Washington. Confirmed by Israeli ministers Amir Peretz and Shaul Mofaz, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being as coy as a new bride.

  • By Linda S. Heard, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 June 12, 2007
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Illustration by Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

Israel is currently wooing Syria with the hesitant blessing of Washington. This open secret has now been confirmed by two Israeli ministers Amir Peretz and Shaul Mofaz while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being as coy as a new bride.

The matchmaker is thought to be Turkey, which has good relations with both sides. Syria is yet to be convinced. But before we order the confetti it's worth noting that such approaches have taken place before.

In December 1999, the then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak met with Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Al Sharaa in Washington when Barak displayed his willingness to give up most of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Talks brokered by Bill Clinton in 2000 stalled and were shelved when Ariel Sharon took power eight months later.

Syria maintains that the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin offered to return the entire Golan in 1996 when Israeli and Syrian officials went as far as penciling-in a border with demilitarised zones on either side.

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu admits to participating in extensive negotiations with the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad via an intermediary around "1997 or 1998" when, he says, Assad agreed to allow Israel to keep Mount Hermon to help defend itself against "an Iranian threat".

Israelis call the occupied southern slopes of Mount Hermon "the eyes of the nation" as at 2,236 metres it is the highest elevation under Israeli control.

The intervening years since the 2000 talks have complicated matters. Then Syria virtually controlled Lebanon, which meant that any peace deal worked out between Tel Aviv and Damascus would probably have included Beirut.

At that time, too, there were serious negotiations under way between Israel and the Palestinians with the dream of a Palestinian state poised to become a reality. But the window of opportunity shut fast with the arrival of Sharon and George W. Bush, leaving the peacemakers out in the cold.

For a while in 2002, Syria was courted by Washington and London to sign on to the invasion of Iraq.

Although Syria was persuaded to vote in favour of the November 2002 UN Security Council Resolution 1441 that presented Iraq with "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations", the Syrian President Bashar Assad made clear his distaste for the subsequent 2003 invasion.

From then on Syria could do no right. It was accused of allowing insurgents and weapons to cross its border with Iraq and of actively backing Palestinian militant groups. In 2004 it was perceived by those in Washington eager to remake the Middle East as "a low hanging fruit" or an easy target.

Syria responded to its isolation and vulnerability by embracing Iran. A mutual defence treaty was signed along with various accords on trade, banking and oil/gas.

Blamed for involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Syria was pressurised by the US to quit Lebanon, which it did in 2005. But as far as Israel and Washington were concerned Syria was still in the doghouse.

It was last summer's Israel-Lebanon war that changed Syria's fragile status. Israel took a surprising and humiliating beating at the hands of Syrian/Iranian ally Hezbollah. If Syria had weighed-in Israel would have fared a lot worse.

Israel's security is currently precarious. There has been a build-up of Syrian troops just 25 miles from the Golan, the army has intensified its training and is thought to have upgraded its armoury with Iranian assistance. Likewise, Hezbollah is believed to be re-arming. Israel has also been the target of Iranian government rhetoric and threats.

It is, therefore, in Israel's interests to make peace with Syria, which would ensure the latter's divorce from Iran, even if this means relinquishing most of the Golan Heights and dismantling settlements. In fact, Israel has little to lose.

Syria, on the other hand, would be forced to sever ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas as part of any peace deal. And in the event such a deal were to go sour it would find itself alone.

Moreover, it would leave itself open to accusations it had let down the Palestinians. With peace agreements signed with Egypt, Jordan and Syria what incentive would Israel have to work towards a Palestinian state?

Such an agreement would leave Israel free to re-occupy Lebanon as Hezbollah's weapons supply route via Syria would be cut off. Alternatively, Lebanon would be manoeuvred into signing a treaty on Israel's terms.

Syria should maintain a high degree of scepticism. Do the Israelis truly want peace with Syria or is their aim to weaken Syria by separating it from its friends?

If the Israelis are serious about marriage, they should grab the Arab peace initiative which is still very much on the table. All Arab League member countries offer normalisation of relations with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal behind 1967 borders.

If the Israeli bride comes-a-calling Damascus should step aside in favour of Israel's one legitimate beau... the Arab League. It's the only lifetime union in town.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com.

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