With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations back in the deep freeze, the past few days have seen a flurry of speculation about possible movement on the Israel-Syrian diplomatic front. Last month President Barack Obama appointed the first ambassador to Damascus since 2005. This week Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Presidents Conference, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, prompting speculation he was there at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While there are signs of movement, we remain skeptical. We’ve seen this movie before. In 1998, Netanyahu engaged his friend, Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder, to take part in back-channel talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad, father of the current president. In the end, though, both leaders got cold feet.
There’s little question the details of an agreement with Syria are far simpler than any likely arrangement with the Palestinians. For all its faults, the Syrian regime is a real government, able to conclude a deal on behalf of the entire nation — unlike a Palestinian leadership divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. What’s more, a genuine peace agreement with Syria could put an end to the mounting threat from Hezbollah, based in a Lebanon that remains under the Syrian thumb, and could weaken Iranian influence in the region.
That’s the logic of negotiations, but there’s very little indication that logic will prevail this time around any more than it has in the past when it comes to Israel-Syria talks.
The younger Assad has shown few signs he is more courageous or farsighted than his late father. He has done nothing to curb the growing power of Hezbollah. On the contrary, WikiLeaks cables reveal Syria is supplying advanced missiles and other weapons to the terror group. Syria’s alliance with Iran remains unbroken. And there’s no indication Assad has dropped the demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights as a precondition of negotiations.
Supporters of Netanyahu, who campaigned on a promise to retain the Golan Heights, say his coalition is too weak to withstand a West Bank withdrawal. It is difficult to believe he would find it much easier to conclude a deal that would return the strategically and economically important Golan Heights to Syria.
By all means, talk to Syria and probe for openings; talking is always better than fighting. But pardon us if we don’t break out the champagne just yet to toast the resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks.