This week's question | 2006-08-22

Should Syria and Israel start peace negotiations now?

Before the recent war in Lebanon, the idea of resuming peace talks between Syria and Israel seemed far-fetched. Nothing in the then prevailing regional geopolitical dynamics, nor in the rigidity of Washington?s approach to dealing with a demonised Syria , pointed to any appetite for revisiting the dust-encrusted dossier of the moribund Syrian-Israeli ?peace track?.

Within Israel the previous government of Ariel Sharon had cold-shouldered the calls by the Syrian president in a number of interviews for relaunching the talks. In the opinion of Sharon that would be tantamount to easing the pressures on Syria, especially in the wake of the squeeze being put on Damascus through the Hariri inquiry, as well as the sanctions being brought to bear by the United States, and to a lesser extent France and other European countries in an attempt to bring the Syrian leadership to heel. The new Kadima government, under Ehud Olmert, stuck to the Sharon line, even more so as it obsessively pursued a unilateral approach to ?disengagement? from the Palestinians, leaving little ?energy? for any other agenda.

According to authoritative reports the Bush administration actively discouraged Israel from responding to the Syrian overtures, thus strengthening the hand of Sharon against some in Israel-including the President - who saw in President Bashar?s remarks an opportunity that should be exploited. A ?weakened? Syria these latter argued could prove to be more flexible in signing up to a deal. In its blind , almost vengeful, vendetta against Syria, Washington virtually declared itself against peace between Israel and one of its Arab neighbours-an outrageous position for a country with pretensions to leadership of the International Community!

As for Syria, the government was under no illusions about the chances for resuming peace talks, even while the President made his public offer. Everything pointed in the direction of increased tension and bellicosity with Iraq the new flashpoint of the declared American imperial outreach. The American Administration was revealing an alarming readiness to run roughshod over Palestinian and Arab vital interests and to provide Israel with unconditional support. The Europeans, the so-called partners in sponsoring the Road Map , increasingly demonstrated their lack of backbone in standing up to Israel?s methodical destruction of that blueprint for peace which they co-authored. The mood in Damascus was one of resignation and resilience, in the knowledge that little movement is to be expected in the search for peace while Washington was in the hands of the neo-Cons and Tel Aviv is hooked on unilateral solutions.

The war launched by Israel on Lebanon and its immediate aftermath has certainly shaken to its foundations the pre-war order and its premises . Israel, even with unlimited American military and political support has emerged crestfallen from its encounter with Hizballah. The ramifications are immense in the long-term strategic sense, giving ammunition to those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who believe in an alternative strategy to the one of bowing to the wishes of America and submitting to the might of Israel which has held sway for at least two decades among Arab ruling circles. Most immediately Syria feels justly vindicated in having stood apart from that general Arab acquiescence , and the acknowledged triumph of the Lebanese Resistance has strengthened its hand both within Lebanon and in regard to its regional role, especially when compared to its pre-war status. It might be unpopular for the time being among Arab rulers who seemed?at least at the beginning of the Lebanese war-to have backed the wrong horse. But as Hizballah?s reputation soars among the peoples of the Arab world, so inevitably will Syria?s, which is closely associated with the Resistance exemplified by that fighting force.

Contrary to Syria?s new resurgent spirit, Israel is in the throes of a lot of soul-searching and agonised self-doubt. It is evident that the government of Olmert has been badly mauled ,and political and media voices are increasingly vociferous in their criticism of the handling of the war. While that criticism at the beginning was largely directed at the actual conduct of the war, it is now spreading to questioning the fundamental reasoning behind the war and reflecting on the one-dimensional militaristic ethos that historically has governed Israel?s response to the adversity that surrounds it. Hence the heavily-nuanced hints, from Peretz, Peres, Livni and others -but not yet Olmert- at the need to engage Syria, if lasting peace in the region, and particularly along the volatile northern frontier with Hizballah is to take root. ?Engaging? Syria, it needs to be emphasised, can be interpreted in different ways. To the hard Right it usually means striking a telling blow a la Lebanon at Syria and even launching a full-scale war. The fall of Olmert might land them , with the demagogue Netanyahu at the helm , the prize of government . Such a scenario could lead to the foreclosing of the ?peace? option, although it has to be said that Netanyahu did send secret peace messages to Damascus when he was last in power in 1996/97.To the more moderate and left-wing side of the Israeli political spectrum , engaging Syria means negotiating a peace treaty which, inevitably, must involve the return of the Golan.

These latter voices are becoming louder and more persistent. Some are also stressing the need to detach Israel?s policy from that of the United States, in recognition of the fact that their interests may sharply differ over the Syrian issue. Washington sees Syria through the prism of its wider Middle Eastern policy ?in which Damascus plays a ?spoiling ?role ?while Israel has more pressing and localised security concerns, not least the ?Iranian threat? which could be significantly reduced if Syria were to enter into a state of peace with Israel.

The signals from Syria are also open to interpretation. The recent speech delivered by President Assad to the Union of Journalists was considered hard-line with its stress on Resistance and learning the lessons of Hizballah?s experience. However, a careful reading of the text also concludes that the Syrian leader is intent on sharply defining the choice: either a serious march towards peace, or an inevitable slide to resistance and conflict.The status quo is no longer tenable.The only qualification is that the peace that is desired should be one derived from strength and not capitulation.

The choice has to be made soon, and the ball is firmly in Israel?s court. Will the debate that is hotting up in Israel result in a drive for peace with Syria-even in the teeth of probable American opposition- or will a weak and divided Israeli political class ignore the lessons of the last war and lurch once more into a new and probably much more cataclysmic adventure ?