Restarting Israeli-Syrian Negotiations
Middle East Report N°63
10 Apr 2007
To access the full report in Arabic, please click here.
To access the executive summary in French, please click here.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Abruptly interrupted in 2000, Israeli-Syrian negotiations seem only a distant possibility but a renewal is urgent and would have a real chance of success. The obstacles appear daunting, including a weak Israeli government and a U.S. administration intent on isolating Syria. However, Syria’s President Bashar repeatedly has stated his desire to resume talks, and in recent conversations with Crisis Group in Damascus, senior officials have clarified these could take place without any precondition – thereby removing what had been a principal hindrance. Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria would profoundly alter the regional atmosphere; a peace deal between them would fundamentally transform it. This opportunity may not last long and should not be wasted.
The conflict between Israel and Syria is no longer the costliest – the border has been Israel’s quietest since 1974 – but it is harmful all the same. It has taken the shape of bloody proxy wars, involving Lebanese territory and both Lebanese and Palestinian groups, and the opportunity costs have also been substantial. It has prevented broader normalisation of Israel’s relations with the Arab world and helped maintain regional tension which could degenerate – directly or, once again, through Lebanon – into another armed conflict.
In Israel, a government discredited by its performance in the Lebanon war and tarred by myriad scandals will think long and hard before taking on the powerful settler lobby backed by a public that has grown accustomed to controlling the Golan Heights, sees little incentive to part with it and whose suspicion of the Syrian regime – which has provided rockets to Hizbollah – has grown with the Lebanon war. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the 1990s, withdrawal from the relatively quiet Golan today likely would trigger stronger public opposition than would withdrawal from a violent and burdensome West Bank.
U.S. hostility to any dialogue with Damascus – with the recent, limited exception of the regional conference on Iraq – is a further significant obstacle. Although Washington denies it, there is every indication it has signalled to Jerusalem its opposition to resumed negotiations with Damascus which, in its view, Syria would use to break out of isolation, cover up greater intrusion in Lebanese affairs and shift focus away from the investigation into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. As U.S. officials see it, Damascus might like to recover the Golan but desperately wants to recover Lebanon; since that is not something Washington is prepared to concede, there is little to be gained by discussions. Given their highly strained relations with Syria, even leading Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are said to have privately counselled the U.S. against any move that would relieve pressure on Damascus.
As a result of these domestic and foreign factors, and due to scepticism regarding Syria’s intentions, Israel has conditioned any dialogue on broad, prior change in Syria’s policies: cutting ties to Hamas, halting any assistance to Hizbollah and fundamentally altering its relationship with Iran.
This is a mistake which is fast on its way to becoming a missed opportunity. In March 2007, Crisis Group engaged in a series of high-level discussions in Israel and Syria in order to assess the two parties’ positions and the prospects for renewed talks. While official resistance to negotiations was clear in Israel, it waned rapidly among both senior military and intelligence figures and members of the political establishment who recognised the value of testing Syria’s overtures and the risks entailed in ignoring them. In Syria, appetite for peace talks may have diminished – a function of repeated Israeli rebuffs and of unwillingness to appear to be begging – but persists nonetheless. Most importantly, officials in Damascus provided their clearest indication to date both that they would resume negotiations without any precondition and that the country’s regional posture and relationships with Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran inevitably would change following a peace deal. In other words, what Israel demands could potentially be achieved, but only as part of a final deal, not as preconditions for it.
Even assuming Syria is more interested in the process than the outcome – itself a debatable proposition – the mere fact of Syrians negotiating with Israelis would produce ripple effects in a region where popular opinion is moving away from acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. The onset of a peace process also would affect the behaviour of militant movements close to Syria; Hamas and Hizbollah are not mere tools of Syrian policy but they are adept at reading the regional map and would likely adapt their policies in response to signs of a changing Syrian-Israeli relationship. The same holds for Iran: Syria would be unlikely to break ties with its closest ally for two decades but Tehran would have to adjust its behaviour as it faced the prospect of a peace agreement.
Resuming talks with Syria is all the more imperative given ongoing efforts to revive the Arab (Beirut) peace initiative in the wake of the 28 March 2007 Arab League summit. While both the U.S. and Israel may prefer to give precedence to the Palestinian over the Syrian track, lack of movement on the latter inevitably will hamper the former. Damascus possesses multiple ways of undermining Israeli-Palestinian talks, whether by encouraging Hamas or Islamic Jihad to resort to violence; vocally criticising Palestinian concessions; or, in the event of a peace deal, obstructing the holding of a referendum among Palestinian refugees in Syria. Likewise, unless it makes a deal with Syria, Israel cannot achieve normalisation with the Arab world – a core objective without which its leaders will find it far more difficult to convince their public to endorse historic concessions to the Palestinians.
The outlines of a solution by now are well known. They were put forward in a 2002 Crisis Group report and recently restated in the context of an unofficial peace initiative involving two private Israeli and Syrian citizens. Under such conditions, there is little justification for Israel to put off peace talks – and even less justification for the U.S. to oppose them.
1. Respond positively to Syria’s unconditional offer to resume peace negotiations.
2. Halt efforts to augment settler presence in the Golan.
3. Facilitate family reunions for Syrian nationals living in the Golan and lift restrictions on visits to Syria by Israeli nationals.
4. Support Arab League efforts to explain and market its peace initiative to Western and Israeli audiences.
5. Engage in public diplomacy by:
(a) restating clearly that Syria is ready to negotiate without any precondition;
(b) giving select Syrian officials a clear mandate to disseminate both Syria’s version of past negotiations and its current position;
(c) committing to provide information on Israeli soldiers missing in action and return the remains of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen in the early stages of resumed negotiations; and
(d) facilitating access to Syria for Israeli nationals with relatives or ancestral roots in Syria, including Israelis of Palestinian and Syrian origin.
6. Press for renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations, beginning by holding parallel discussions with both sides.
Jerusalem/Damascus/Washington/Brussels, 10 April 2007