WASHINGTON - We are at a critical juncture in the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. It is this struggle that takes precedence over the regional Arab-Israeli conflict because its acuteness and its constant festering since 1948 underlies the intractability of all the other conflicts.
It becomes essential then for the new openings between Syria and Israel, for example, to be a spur to a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians as well, not a hindrance. My work in Syria for peace during the last three years has yielded the following insights into what may work:
* Most influential Syrians, including many high-ranking officials, want normalization of relations with Israel based on a return of the Golan. There are obstacles from deeply entrenched Old Guard interests in the status quo, but a positive showing of peace by Israel and the US will significantly strengthen and even transform the power of moderate forces in the Syrian leadership.
* The Syrian public, however, is moved and always has been by the injustice done to the Palestinians, their fellow Arabs and Muslims. They will not support President Assad in peace talks--support he truly needs--unless they see some genuine signals from the Israelis that they are serious about justice for Palestinian refugees, and a renewed respect for and reconciliation with Muslims.
* Most influential Syrians are ready for a less proprietary relationship with Lebanon even though they resent the "ingratitude" of the Lebanese.
What this all means is that there is room for President Assad, who has already reached out to Israel quietly for three years, to reach out publicly to the people of Israel and the Jewish community as further pressure. But he must receive something substantial in return in order to not lose domestic support, which is solidly behind the Palestinian cause. It also means that if strong diplomacy prevails there is room for a non-military transformation of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship.
The entire Israeli security establishment wants a serious dialogue with Syria, especially given the regional increase in rocket investments and the resulting blow to Israel's defences last year. Most Israeli security analysts are satisfied that Assad is serious about negotiations, but it is the White House that, due to its anti-diplomatic policy of threats only, is preventing Prime Minister Olmert from taking action. Olmert, and any aspiring leader of Israel, is afraid of the political ability of the White House to shift their support toward Netanyahu and bring down the current Israeli government.
In order to set in motion a chain reaction of peace moves, we need a US administration that is serious about comprehensive peace in the Middle East. This may only come after the next American elections. But it is also possible that the sitting president may simply give Olmert the green light to talk to Syria without any acknowledgement of having done so.
What the region needs is a thaw in Syrian-Israeli encounters, some significant measures designed to change the living conditions of the Palestinians, and serious final status talks with Fatah on the major outstanding issues: the 1948 refugees and Jerusalem. There is every reason to believe that movement in these realms will put major pressure on the military wing of Hamas to desist from resistance because the people, even inside Hamas, will demand it once they see the benefits accruing.
Iran, Qatar, and private Gulf funds continue to massively support Hamas' resistance, and this can undo peace progress. This is where constant, forceful diplomacy in the region will have to accompany bilateral negotiations. This is not something that the current US administration may be capable of, but the major players in the region should be planning for a different American posture before long. The current approach to the Middle East is an abysmal defeat for America, and this assessment has bipartisan consensus. When the White House is to the right of the Israeli security establishment something is out of balance in American politics.
An American shift to pragmatism will not satisfy those who want an even-handed American approach to the Palestinians, however. But we can expect more pragmatism and a deeper understanding of the consequences of the brutal passivity of the Bush years in the face of the situation in Gaza and the West Bank. Meanwhile, the stars may soon be aligned for Syria to be the next Arab rejectionist state to transform its relationship with Israel. This will be good news only if it is not at the expense of the Palestinians and their rights to equality and final justice.
* Marc Gopin is the James Laue Professor at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.com
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