You Can’t Ignore Syria

reprinted with permission from the Israel Policy Forum Dr. Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, is in the United States promoting Israeli-Syrian negotiations. This is Liel’s specialty and has been for many years, a specialty he has pursued in a long career in government and academe. In 2006, Liel engaged in unofficial negotiations with Damascus through a Syrian intermediary. After several long meetings, he became convinced that the Assad government was ready for a deal: peace in exchange for the Golan Heights. The proposed deal would have Israel withdraw from the strategically valuable Golan while preserving its security with early warning stations, demilitarized zones, and international (most likely U.S.-led) monitoring. A buffer zone separating Israel and Syria would be established in the form of a large nature park open to residents of both countries. Israel would retain exclusive control over the coveted headwaters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Syria would end its support for Hezbollah and distance itself from Iran. Likewise, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal would be forced to leave Damascus. Once these mutual commitments are met, a full peace treaty would be signed and normal relations established. The Assad regime would regain the Golan Heights but at the price of terminating its war with Israel and its support, of any and all kinds, for Israel’s enemies. It sounds like a good deal for Israel and for Syria, too. It is. The Syrian people, like the Israelis, are desperate to end the conflict (even more, they want the Golan back). Nevertheless, when Liel informed Israeli government about the terms of this possible deal and suggested that negotiations be elevated to an official level, he was rebuffed. Apparently, the Bush administration did not want its ally talking to an associate member of the “Axis of Evil.” The Olmert government acquiesced. The Liel initiative came to naught. But Liel remains undaunted and determined to get negotiations going despite the current focus (weak as it is) on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In a speech in Washington this week, sponsored by Israel Policy Forum and the Middle East Institute, Liel said he viewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations not as a substitute for negotiations with the Palestinians (as they have sometimes been used in the past), but as a supplement to them. This is not to say that Liel is optimistic about the post-Annapolis diplomatic scene. He isn’t. But he thinks that an Israeli-Syrian deal would only advance chances for a deal with the Palestinians. “Syria hosts Hamas’s leadership (Khaled Mashal). If the Syrians sign an agreement with us, expel Khaled Mahsal, kick out Hamas activists, and stop financing and arming them, it would be a major blow to them . . . like when Turkey in February 1999 kicked out PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and stopped financing and arming the PKK,” he said. He added that the moderate Palestinian forces of Mahmoud Abbas would be in a far better position to negotiate with Israel, and Israel would be more willing to close a deal with Abbas, if Hamas was significantly weakened—as it would be by the loss of the Syrian connection. Perhaps more significant is that an Israeli-Syrian agreement would essentially push Iran out of the whole Israeli-Palestinian equation. “The most meaningful thing we can do is to create a rift between Iran and Syria . . . You can’t run policy in the Middle East on emotion. Realpolitik is to break the Iran-Syria alliance. Strategically, as I see it, if Iran can’t arm Hezbollah and Syria won’t arm them, Hezbollah will be in big trouble,” he said. With Hezbollah defanged, Iran loses its main entry point in the region. No longer allied with Syria, it would have no presence anywhere near Israel’s vulnerable north. Of course, until Israel and the Palestinians reach a deal, the Iranians would still have their pretext for threats (if not worse) against Israel. Nevertheless, Iran’s influence would suffer a major blow, which would be good not only for Israel but for America as well. Liel understands that the Bush administration—and others—strongly resist the idea of dealing with Syria. But he says that Israel is simply too small and vulnerable to make the kinds of calculations the United States does. “When I joined the foreign ministry in 1971, we could talk to every country. At that time, everyone was an enemy and there was no option to choose the good guys over the bad guys. “Then we had a breakthrough with Egypt and then Jordan . . . The United States sees the world and the Middle East very differently than we do. They see it as a superpower. As a superpower, they have the luxury to choose between the good and bad guys. We, in Israel, were pushed into this [policy] regarding Syria but also Hamas . . . This policy is contrary to our interests, both on Syria and the Palestinian issue,” he said. Liel does not believe in the concept of not negotiating with enemies, especially if those enemies are powerful and can do you harm. (Syria is in that category. President Assad’s hold on power is strengthening and so, apparently, is Syria’s military might.) “Yes, we want to sign an agreement with our enemies. We don’t need agreements with our friends. Americans are naïve to think that first someone has to be a friend before we make peace with them. Sadat was no friend to Israel and fought a terrible war with Israel before we talked to him. Nor should we expect our enemies to concede anything before we reach an agreement,” he said. That is what negotiations are for. Alon Liel is clearly a man on a mission. A patriotic Israeli who has spent a lifetime serving his country, he simply will not sit still while Israel’s position deteriorates. He thinks it is deteriorating now. He sees a window of opportunity. He believes the Syrian government is ready for a deal now. That deal would help secure Israel not only against a growing threat from Damascus, but also against the Iranians and Hamas. Like many Israelis, he must also know that looming just beyond the horizon is Al Qaeda which may, or may not, have a foothold on Israel’s borders but is desperately seeking one. Why should Israel simply sit and wait until all these threats materialize in a terrible way. Israel is strong now, strong enough to cut some very good deals. That won’t always be the case. MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center Due to the relative weekly renaming cycle used by the website, JSPAN reprints the IPF Friday in its entirety on its website for the purpose of having an unchanging URL by which to link to.