Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

With growing insistence, some influential Israelis are beginning to press the Netanyahu government to seek to make peace with Syria — even if the price tag is the return of the entire Golan to Syrian sovereignty.

The latest example of this campaign is an interview which Major-General (retired) Uri Saguy, 66, gave on June 11 to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot, in which he declared that, "I believe that a political agreement between Syria and Israel is a military national interest of the highest order".

Of all Israelis, whether soldiers or civilians, Saguy can probably claim to have the greatest first-hand knowledge of the Syrian file. He fought on the Golan Heights in both the 1967 and 1973 wars, and was wounded twice. He commanded the elite Golani brigade, was head of the General Staff's operations department in the 1982 Lebanon war, served as head of Southern Command, and then as chief of military intelligence from 1991 to 1995. He has advised several Israeli prime ministers on Syria and, a decade ago, when the two countries were talking, conducted face-to-face negotiations with Syrian officials.

He now urges that talks with Damascus should resume. He also criticises Ehud Barak for not making peace with Syria when, as prime minister in 2000, he had the chance to do so — but backed away. Saguy calls that "a missed opportunity of deep historic significance".

Verbal agreement

Saguy insists that an essential precondition for the start of negotiations with Syria, and for peace to be achievable, would be a declaration of Israeli willingness to withdraw to the June 4, 1967, lines. This was the essence of the so-called ‘Rabin deposit in the American pocket' — the verbal pledge which, before his assassination by an Israeli fanatic in November 1995, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin gave to the Americans in 1994. His pledge of full withdrawal from the Golan was, of course, conditional on Israeli requirements being met in the areas of security, borders, water and normalisation.

In the event, Rabin himself delayed honouring his pledge until it was too late, while Barak, in turn, "got cold feet", when he was faced with the same crucial decision.

In the interview, Saguy was asked whether Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's present prime minister, could make peace with Syria. "I don't know about his will," he replied. "He has the ability, both personally and politically. But he has to decide that is the goal. There will not be a more favourable political situation. Barak [now defence minister] is with him and the opposition will support it if there is a reasonable agreement."

Israel's leaders, Saguy said, had to grasp that a political agreement with Syria was "a primary interest of Israel". Israel could not depend on military power alone. If there were another war, Israel would probably win it, but then after the war "we will be talking about the same things". He added that "not deciding [to proceed with talks] is also a decision. Of course, it increases the chance of a military confrontation".

Saguy's message is clear: "We have to find a way," he said, "to have secret meetings [with Syria] to ascertain whether there is a basis to renew negotiations."

Why is a highly experienced Israeli soldier like Saguy pressing for a deal with Syria? Other key Israeli security chiefs are also said to share his views. What are their motives? Undoubtedly, they are worried by the sharp deterioration of Israel's image in the world — including in the United States. Dagan is reported to have told the Israeli Cabinet that Israel was no longer an asset for the US, but had become a burden.

On record

So could President Bashar Al Assad, conclude a separate peace if Israel were ready to withdraw from the whole of the Golan? He answered this question with great clarity in an important interview with the Italian newspaper La Republica on May 25.

"If Israel will return the Golan," he declared, "we cannot say no. But only a comprehensive agreement, which includes the Palestinians, will guarantee real peace ... An agreement limited to Syria and Israel will leave the Palestinian issue unresolved. Rather than peace, it will be a truce". The Syrian president is evidently not hopeful about the prospects for peace. "It will not happen in the near future," he said. "Israel, right now, is not ready for an agreement ... Israeli society has moved too far to the right ... Everybody knows that those talks [mediated by George Mitchell, the American special envoy] will lead nowhere. The Arabs know it, the Palestinians know it, even the Americans."

Instead, Al Assad is taking comfort in what he describes as "an agreement between Middle Eastern powers to redesign the regional order". He calls this "a new geostrategic map, which aligns Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia, brought together by shared policies, interests and infrastructure".

Very probably, it is precisely the emergence of this new geostrategic map, unfavourable to Israel, that is causing Saguy and other prominent Israelis to lobby for peace with Syria, even at the cost of returning the Golan.


Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.