Israel-Syria Breakthrough Anticipated
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Israel-Syria Breakthrough Anticipated

Even though nearly three years of secret, unofficial Israeli-Syrian talks have ended, the Israeli who conducted the negotiations has not given up and believes it would take only four to six months for both sides to reach an agreement. Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said he and his Syrian-American counterpart, Ibrahim Suleiman, have been invited to discuss their talks at an April 12 meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. And he said hundreds of peace supporters from Israel and Syria are preparing to stage a demonstration along the border “to support the launching of talks.”

“We will do our best to try to convince the Israeli government that they are wrong,” Liel told a conference call Tuesday arranged by the Israel Policy Forum. He said the two sides agreed that the Golan Heights would be demilitarized, no one would live there after five years and that it would be turned largely into a peace park accessible to Israelis and Syrians alike.

He said he is confident that were Israeli-Syrian talks to begin now, “we can finalize a deal within four to six months.”Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rebuffed repeated overtures by Syrian President Bashir Assad to commence negotiations, saying Syria must first take meaningful steps to show it wants peace. Such steps include evicting Hamas and other terrorist groups from Damascus and ending its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Liel said the Olmert administration has also said the Bush White House is against such talks because they would appear to be rewarding Syria at a time when it is helping anti-American insurgents in Iraq. He said that if there is American pressure, “we will work on Washington too” to lift its objections.

The Jerusalem Post quoted a senior State Department official Wednesday as saying it is a “myth” to believe the U.S. is “blocking the path to Syrian-Israeli discussions.”

Retired Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a former head of military intelligence, agreed with that comment and added that there is nothing wrong with probing the Syrian initiative.

“Only if we negotiate can we find out if an agreement is possible,” he said.

But he quickly added that the Olmert government is “so weak and incapable of making any decisions that I don’t believe we are in a position to initiate any negotiations that might result in withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It would not make a difference if that were to happen in five years or 10 years; it’s a question of principle.”

Asked if the Israeli public would accept a withdrawal agreement, Gazit said: “I don’t think so, unfortunately. … And for the same reason the Israeli government is not seriously trying to begin negotiations with the Palestinians because the government is incapable of saying, ‘We have reached an agreement but there is a price.’” Gazit said Assad might have the same problem selling any deal to his people. “I am skeptical if an agreement could be reached that would be acceptable,” he said.

Liel said that in his peace talks, “they told us that the [Syrian] alliance with Iran is not a natural alliance and that they have to keep it because they do not have an alternative.” A similar refrain was heard this week from Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet. He told reporters that the reason Hamas is embracing Iran is because the international community’s decision to cut off financial aid to the Palestinian government has left it with no alternative. Hamas’ exiled leader, Khalid Meshal, met with Iranian leaders this week, promised that Hamas would never recognize Israel and reportedly received assurances of future financial help for the planned Palestinian coalition government expected to be announced late next week. Iran has already given Hamas a reported $120 million and Diskin said Hamas terrorists are receiving training in Iran. Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, dismissed the “notion that isolating Syria and Hamas is forcing them to the other side.” He pointed out that Syria and Iran have been allies since the 1970s.

“It is patronizing and dangerous not to give credence to what leaders say, and to say that if only Israel and the U.S. were to change their policies than radical regimes like Syria and Hamas would be more cooperative,” he said.Asked about Liel’s Syrian peace gambit, which Liel said was started at Assad’s initiative in 2004, Steinberg said such efforts are often launched at times when there is a political vacuum. But he said there is “no indication” that Syria is serious about making peace.

“I look at it as a noble crusade by Alon and a small group who are all funded by a European government [Switzerland] while the Syrians continue to be allied and working with the Iranians,” Steinberg said. “Stable peace cannot be made by an isolated leader without creating a base of popular support in his country,” Steinberg observed, adding that Assad has failed to do that. “Assad is more interested in the process than the substance. He gets points by saying he is talking to Israelis, but that is not how relations are transformed.”

Professor Arie Kacowicz, head of the International Relations Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pointed out that each time there is a deadlock in Palestinian talks, “there is a temptation to return to the Syrian track … because it is clear and the equation is easier.”

But he questioned whether it would be wise for Israel to pursue such talks if the U.S. was truly against them.

“We need the U.S. as an underwriter of economic support” should a Syrian deal be approved, he said.

Kacowicz explained that if a deal called for the withdrawal of all 17,000 Israeli residents, they would have to be relocated. And he said the cost of placing equipment on the Golan Heights to monitor Syrian troop movements would also be costly.

There were Israeli reports last week that Syrian troops appeared to be preparing for war, something Kacowicz said “would make sense because in a way it is telling us that if you don’t want to talk to us about peace, we will have a limited war and then talk to you about the same issues you won’t talk about now.”

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