As the 40th anniversary of Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights from Syria neared this week, Israel carried out military exercises in the Negev using a mock Syrian village. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel is not looking for another war, but rather wishes to pursue peace with Syria.
Sources said Israel is conducting back-channel talks with Syria to learn how much it is willing to give up in return for the Golan Heights. These developments come as Syria appears to be preparing for war, according to Military Intelligence Chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin. He reportedly told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Syria was “making very real preparations, cleaning army posts, conducting large drills and strengthening defenses.”
“They are reaching a state of readiness for war more than in the past, but this doesn’t mean they’ll be ready for war tomorrow,” he said. “The Syrians have a very large quantity of long-range missiles. They do not need to move forces around to attack with these missiles.”
But a senior Israeli military official told Israel Radio on Wednesday: “This wartime atmosphere has nothing to do with reality …. It may cause a crisis in itself. In the past, unnecessary chatter caused military escalations that were not in keeping with the wishes of the leadership.”
And Olmert himself warned: “We must avoid miscalculations that are liable to lead to a security deterioration.”
Israeli media reports said the Syrian army has improved its fortifications, moved closer to the Golan Heights and received modern, Russian-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. There were concerns in Israel that Syria might launch a surprise attack, as it did in the past, in order to capture part of the Golan Heights and thus have a stronger hand when bargaining for an Israeli withdrawal from the rest of it.
Although the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that most Israeli intelligence analysts do not believe Assad is preparing to start a war, Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defense minister, told members of the Israel Policy Forum in a conference call Tuesday that he was puzzled by the “huge, colossal effort” of Syria to be armed by Russia.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘What for?’” he said. “Long-range rockets — many of them — what for? Is Syria preparing itself for aggression of its own or is it allied with Iran? I have to be cautious and shouldn’t rush to negotiate” with Syria for a peace treaty.
“People have oversimplified talks with Syria,” Sneh said. “They believe that if we give back the Golan Heights it will be OK. It doesn’t work this way. We have to know which Syria we have at the end of the process. I don’t demand that they divorce themselves from the Iranians tonight, but I have to know that at the end of the process they will be on the same side of the demarcation line and not on the side of Iran. This should be clarified.”
He pointed out that Syria continues to smuggle arms to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.
“I don’t trade strategic assets for words or nice behavior,” Sneh said when pressed about the possibility of returning the Golan Heights. “The return can be discussed in a later phase. It is not a down payment for promising or even for stopping support of our enemies.”
“This relationship should be built gradually, and the first phase would be that Syria would not actively support the enemies of Israel, especially Hezbollah. We need facts on the ground. If they stopped being a partner of Iran and Hezbollah, which is actually the same, they would be eligible to be partners for negotiation.”
Asked whether this gradual process of building a relationship required a certain amount of time, Sneh said it did not.
“If there are good intentions by Syria, I don’t think someone will have to wait,” he said. “But until now we don’t see it.”
Some analysts favor talks with Syria in the belief it could reduce the chances for war. Others, including Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, argue that Israel is well positioned to conclude a satisfactory agreement. He pointed out that Syrian President Bashar Assad is a “political novice” who is “under strain” because of efforts to establish an international tribunal to try those responsible for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A United Nations investigative team implicated high-ranking Syrian officials in the assassination, and Miller said Assad “wants to change the subject.”
“Is he going to change it via war or negotiations?” he asked. “I don’t know. … This is a highly volatile and unpredictable situation.” But Moshe Maoz, a Syrian expert who is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pointed out that Assad began publicly calling for peace talks with Israel as early as 2003, more than a year before the Hariri murder.
“There is a debate in Israel among the higher echelons whether to talk to Syria or not,” he said. “The intelligence community, the foreign ministry and the defense ministry want to check on this possibility. The Mossad [Israel’s foreign intelligence agency], the prime minister and most ministers are against it, and most of the public is too. They want peace but do not want to return the Golan. I read the other day that Olmert is thinking about some third party checking with Syria [about peace prospects]. Why a third party? They [Syria] want to talk, so sit and talk. You don’t have to commit yourself. … What does it cost to sound them out?”
Aaron Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state, said that “on paper a compelling argument could be made that with the Israeli-Palestinian talks suspended, Israeli-Syrian negotiations make a lot of sense because they would have a very quieting effect on Lebanon.”
An Israeli-Syrian peace treaty “would require heavy lifting on the part of the United States,” Miller said. “The water and security requirements alone would be extremely expensive, and more than likely [the agreement] would involve an American security commitment, which is what we were prepared to provide to both sides in 1991; [President Bill] Clinton was, too, [from] 1993 to 2000.”He added that he does not know whether the Bush administration would agree to deploy troops on the Golan Heights to ensure security for both sides. But Sneh said he would not favor a “foreign army defending Israel.”
“It means that there is no serious will on one side,” he said. “And when one side tries to violate it, a foreign army cannot stop it. The real solution lies in deep and normal relations between the two countries.”
Although most analysts said they favored Israeli-Syrian peace talks, there was less unanimity about whether Olmert had the support of the country to enter into a peace agreement that would involve giving up the Golan Heights.
“Assuming the Americans and Syrians do what needs to be done, absolutely” it’s possible, Miller said. “Expectations are so low and the hunger for something real is so deep,” he observed. “Knowing that for many Israelis the prospects of moving on the Israeli-Palestinian track are so grim, on paper the Israeli-Syrian track looks extremely attractive — even more so than it did between 1993 and 2000.”
But Maoz said Israel does not want to give up the Golan Heights, and he noted that President George W. Bush does not favor Israeli-Syrian talks because Syria “supports the insurgents [in Iraq] and terrorism [in Lebanon].”
“Bush said we would be willing to talk to them only when they stop everything and give up all their cards,” he said.
Pipes said he believes the time is ripe because “you have two very beleaguered leaders. Assad [is worried about] the international tribunal and Olmert’s popularity is in the single digits. Both are trying to change the subject. Israeli leaders build themselves up by peace accords with Arab leaders and by process of elimination, Syria [is next].
”But, he added, “it looks unlikely to me” that Israel would be prepared now to give up the Golan Heights.