Assuage Assad

by Moshe Ma'oz
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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - The ideal way to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours is through a Madrid-like regional peace process based on the Arab League initiative (2002). The logic of such a comprehensive approach is that some of Israel's disputes with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians are interrelated, and a regional peace can serve the interests of all parties and sustain productive coexistence. For example, the crucial issue of Palestinian refugees must be settled with Syrian and Lebanese participation, since some 300,000 refugees reside in each of these countries. Regional designs to settle this issue, as well as to develop water resources, tourism and the like, can provide fruits of peace and a solid basis for Arab-Israeli partnership.

Unfortunately, Israeli leaders lack the courage and vision to embark upon a comprehensive peace process, particularly with Syrian participation - a notion that is strongly rejected by most Israeli Jews (some 65%) and the Bush administration. On the face of it, there is a fairly good chance to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, owing to Bush's encouragement, the support of many Israelis and the insistence of Abu Mazen. But in reality such a process is likely to encounter enormous obstacles, notably the issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and the role of Hamas in the Gaza strip. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are incapable of settling these critical problems, at least for the foreseeable future.

By contrast, an Israeli-Syrian peace process, which will also include Lebanon, has a better chance to succeed, considering mutual interests and past experience. Indeed, an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement was almost reached in 1999/2000 under active mediation by former President Clinton. It provided for the return of the Golan to Syria along the pre-1967 border, as well as its demilitarisation and effective supervision. It also provided for diplomatic and economic relations between Syria and Israel. The main obstacle that prevented the signing of a peace agreement was a dispute over a short and narrow strip of land - 12 km long and a few hundred meters wide - along the northeastern tip of Lake Tiberias. With mutual goodwill, this dispute can be settled by turning that strip of land into a Syrian-Israeli park under joint sovereignty for instance.

Despite the changing strategic and political circumstances in the region, it is still in the vested interest of Israel, Syria and Lebanon to reach peaceful coexistence; however, there are significant obstacles that can prevent or delay a peace process among them. All three governments wish to avoid another war that is likely to be devastating, particularly to Syria and Lebanon. Bashar Assad and his Alawi-Sunni elite may also lose their power if Syria is defeated. Both Syria and Israel worry that, in the case of war, Lebanon may pose a threat to their national security and other vital interests; Israel is deeply concerned about the potential menace by Hizbullah, whereas Syria worries about a possible Israeli invasion through Lebanon's Beqaa valley into the Damascus region. In addition, Damascus is interested in re-establishing its strategic control over Lebanon as well as a pro-Syrian government in Beirut that would put off the Hariri investigation and provide channels for Syrian exports, banking and labour.

Within a regional peace agreement, Israel may acknowledge Syrian interests in Lebanon, provided Damascus stops arming, and even helps disarm Hizbullah. Another important and related Israeli condition would be that Syria disengages from Iran, Israel's avowed enemy. If Assad agrees to meet these conditions and directly appeals to the Israeli public to reach a peace agreement, it is possible that more Israeli Jews will be ready to give back the Golan in return for peace with Syria.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that Assad will not disengage from his strategic allies and the rising forces in the region - Iran and Hizbullah - unless he obtains American and Arab guarantees to uphold his vital interests and needs. He will thus expect from the United States and the major Arab states to acknowledge Syrian interests in Lebanon - defusing the Hariri investigation being one of them - as well as to increase financial assistance to Syria, particularly from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. From Washington, Damascus will possibly require a commitment not to attack Syria, to erase its name from the list of countries supporting terror, and abolish the recently imposed sanctions on Syria. The major Sunni Arab states may be inclined to accept Assad's requests, provided he abandons the Shia alliance with Iran and Hizbullah.

However, President Bush will continue to insist that Damascus first submit to his demands, namely to disengage from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas (the previous request to democratise the Syrian regime has been practically dropped). It is almost certain that Israeli leaders will not breach Bush's practical veto on peace negotiations with Assad, even though it is in Israel's interest to seek peace with Syria. However, among the Israeli political and military elite, there has recently developed a significant inclination to sound out Assad's peace overtures. It is now a challenge for Israel and other US allies to induce Bush to negotiate with Assad with no pre-conditions, as the Baker-Hamilton report suggests, or at least to withdraw his objection to Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese peace talks.

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* Moshe Ma'oz is Professor Emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007, www.commongroundnews.org Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
 
 
 
 
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