An Opportunity for Peacemaking

AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi
By Massimiliano Fiore

With the Middle East in turmoil and the Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) eager to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under intense international pressure to prove he is serious about achieving peace. 

His position is particularly uncomfortable since he needs to craft a political and territorial formula that is generous enough to satisfy the international community and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, without causing the break-up of his right-wing coalition.

Yet, the prospects of reaching a comprehensive agreement at this juncture are grim. Unfortunately, the current domestic political situations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are not suitable for advancing the peace process.

It is particularly difficult to imagine Netanyahu’s narrow right-wing coalition government taking political action that would divide Jerusalem, agreeing to more than a symbolic Palestinian state consisting of a set of disconnected territories, giving up control of the Jordan River Valley or resolving the Palestinian refugee problem. It is equally hard to imagine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ fragile and discredited (particularly following al-Jazeera’s publication of the Palestine Papers) Authority accepting from Israel anything less than a recognition of a truly viable and independent state in the West Bank (including a capital in East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip, as well as some political formula to address the refugee issue. The current political fragmentation among the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah in control of the West Bank,also means that Abbas lacks the internal legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of all the Palestinian people.

What is more, it is quite clear now that, rather than negotiating directly with the Netanyahu Government, the Palestinian Authority’s preferred strategy is to unilaterally declare a state in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and seek international support for this. According to Abbas’ calculations, once his state is recognized, “Israel will become the illegal occupier of a sovereign state and full member of the UN. At that point, Israel would be subject to international sanctions that would destroy its economy and further undermine its image, condemning the country to the status of an international pariah”.

This is a gloomy picture, but it is unrealistic to think that a comprehensive agreement can be reached at this time. While the Israeli-Palestinian peace track is very troubled, the Israeli-Syrian track – given that the main conflict issue between Israel and Syria is the Golan Heights – “appears to be simpler to resolve than the complicated issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians”. And a peace agreement between Jerusalem and Damascus seems to serve both Israel’s and Syria’s interests: the former wants to break away from its diplomatic isolation, while the latter is afraid to be the next in line to face a popular uprising, as it suffers deep authoritarianism, widespread corruption, high unemployment and growing inflation rates. Peace with Israel would give the regime a political boost and reinvigorate the economy because it would not only include the lifting of trade and financial sanctions by the US, but also a stream of foreign money into the nation.

What are the positions of Israel and Syria in this process?

The story behind the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations is one of deep mutual distrust. “Israel considered Syria to be a significant strategic threat not just because of Syria’s military strength, but also because of the fact that Syria controlled Lebanon, supported Hezbollah, provided a safe-haven for Hamas and had close relations with Iran”. Negotiations with Syria have been problematic on the one hand, due to Syria’s requirements for a full Israeli withdrawal from the land extending from the Golan Heights down to the Lake of Galilee, on which it is unwilling to compromise on. On the other hand, Israel has been equally stubborn, stipulating that a normalisation of relations with Syria would require adequate and concrete security arrangements and official Syrian recognition of Israel’s water needs.

Yet, despite the deep-seated mutual mistrust, there were two periods in which an agreement was almost reached.

The first period of near success followed the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, before the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. The second period when Israeli-Syrian peace was within grasp followed the election of Israel’s Ehud Barak in May 1999 until the collapse of the talks in March 2000.

It must, however, be said that these two nearly successful peace talks outlined the main topics that the peace agreement would have to cover. They also reached explicit agreement on the aims and principles of a lasting security arrangement and they generally concurred on the content of the peace agreement. Consequently, even though future Israeli-Syrian negotiations will undoubtedly be difficult, they still have a better chance of success than Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives.

What are the current prospects for a revamped and durable Israeli-Syrian settlement?

After the failure of the 2008 indirect talks between Israel and Syria under the sponsorship of Turkey, which were close to resuming direct peace talks, it now seems that an agreement is once again within reach. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared to As-Safir in July 2010 that “Our position is clear: when Israel returns the entire Golan Heights, we will sign a peace agreement with it. .... What is the point of peace if the embassy is surrounded by security, if there is no trade and tourism between the two countries? That is not peace. That is a permanent cease-fire agreement. This is what I say: We are interested in a comprehensive peace, i.e. normal relations”. These remarks, however, did not make headline news in Israel and, at the end of January 2011, Assad restated his peaceful intentions in an interview to The Wall Street Journal: “We are focusing on the peace. … War is not in our interest or in the interest of the region. … Only peace can help us”. One is left to wonder what more Assad can say to convince the Netanyahu Government that he is serious about making peace with Israel.

Beyond such media outreach, over the last few months Assad has been working closely with US Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close associate of President Barack Obama, on a plan to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel. Strong US support is absolutely crucial for the talks to have any chance of success. Every enduring agreement in the history of the Arab-Israeli peace process has in fact been the result not only of intense US-led mediations, but also of US commitment to pay billions of dollars in annual economic and military aid to the parties.

President Assad is prepared to sign a “total peace”, guaranteeing full diplomatic and economic relations in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. How will Netanyahu respond to Assad’s overture? Though Netanyahu offered a “commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923” back in 1998, might he now be willing to make the final step and accept Syria’s presence along the north eastern shore of the Lake of Galilee as well as Syrian control over the region south of the Lake? The difference between the two borders is small in terms of territory, but vast in terms of resources. Returning to the 4 June 1967 line would give Syria control over a substantial portion of the headwaters of the Jordan River.

But the potential benefits to Israel are also immense. By signing an agreement with Damascus, Jerusalem could break the circle of hostility that surrounds its border. Strengthened Israeli-Syrian relations could prompt Syria to disengage from Iran and wield its persuasion powers with Hezbollah to encourage peace talks with Israel. The ensuing political shift could also potentially moderate Hamas leaders in Damascus.

In Scars of Wars, Wounds of Peace, historian and former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote that “the history of peacemaking between Israel and its Arab neighbours showed that it was the change of mind of the hawks and the shift in their positions, not the preaching of the doves, that allowed Israel to exploit the chances of peace at vital crossroads. The major breakthroughs in peacemaking were made and legitimized by the hawks. This was certainly the case with Menachem Begin in 1978 and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993”.

Will Netanyahu change his mind and shift his position, like Begin and Rabin did, or will he miss an historic opportunity for peace? His imminent actions will soon prove whether this “triumphant hawk” pattern might still be valid for peacemaking in the Middle East today.


This article is a shorter version of a policy paper prepared by the author for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) under the title How Israel Can Turn the Unrest in the Middle East into an Opportunity for Peacemaking


24 March 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi


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