Gidon D. Remba
Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
January 23, 2007
As the Israel-Lebanon war raged last summer, I called for the U.S. and Israel to renew peace talks with Syria, aborted seven years ago under Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton. Such talks, I maintained, would offer Israel the best chance for cutting Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas while isolating Iran, a trifecta that would weaken all of Israel’s greatest enemies at once while removing Syria itself from the orbit of confrontation.
By early September, I reminded readers that the Egyptian-Israeli peace process began with secret meetings between Egyptian and Israeli officials in Morocco, thanks to Romanian mediation. The Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative was born in the early 90’s from unofficial contacts between Israeli academics and Palestinians not affiliated with the PLO, under the auspices of Norway in several European capitals, especially Oslo. As the talks progressed, they were upgraded to include PLO officials, and then top Israeli Foreign Ministry officials under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Recalling these earlier peace efforts, I suggested that third party mediators were likely carrying messages between Syria and Israel to lay the groundwork for direct negotiations, which would doubtless be preceded by unofficial Israeli-Syrian contacts. If progress is achieved behind the scenes, I noted, “we can expect the clandestine dialogue—and the public denials—to intensify.”
Now we learn from Ha’aretz’s chief diplomatic correspondent Akiva Eldar that a series of secret unofficial meetings were conducted in Europe between September 2004 and July 2006 between Syrians and Israelis. The Israeli negotiator, former Israel Foreign Ministry director-general Dr. Alon Liel, met with Abe Suleiman, a Syrian-American who is close to Syrian President Bashar Assad. They were brought together by Geoffrey Aronson, an American analyst from the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, under the auspices of the government of Switzerland, represented by Nicholas Lang of the Swiss Foreign Ministry. Their meetings produced a breakthrough framework for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, resolving many of the issues which had derailed the official talks under Barak and Bashar Assad’s father. The Syrian representative showed flexibility on many of the most intractable issues:
- Much of the Golan Heights would become a park administered by Syrian civilian authorities, with Israelis free to visit during daytime without visas.
- The entire Golan would become a demilitarized zone, and areas of reduced military forces would be created on both sides of the Golan in Syria and Israel at a 4:1 ratio in Israel’s favor.
- The time-table for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan, which was not finalized, might be extended beyond five years.
- Israel would control the use of water in the upper Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.
- The US would operate an early warning station on Mt. Hermon.
The Syrian representative agreed that Syria would end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and “distance itself from Iran” under a peace treaty with Israel. Former Israeli cabinet ministers and current Knesset members from several parties recently heard a similar offer from President Assad’s legal advisor, Riad Daoudi, at the Madrid + 15 conference, which commemorated the 15-year anniversary of the historic 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli Peace Conference, convened by President Bush’s father. Syria would also promote a solution to the conflict in Iraq, using its influence to broker an agreement between Sunni and Shia militia and political leaders. Syria would further contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum by helping to settle the Palestinian refugee problem on terms acceptable to Israel. In an interview with the German magazine Spiegel on Sept. 24, 2006, Assad, remarkably, adopted Israel’s view that the Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, not to Israel.
Leaving no doubt of the seriousness with which the Syrian leadership took these “Track 2” talks, Suleiman attended a final meeting with his Israeli interlocutor in the midst of this summer’s Lebanon war, and conveyed a request from the Syrian government for a secret meeting with the director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office, to be attended by a Syrian deputy minister and a high-level US diplomat. Israel rejected the Syrian request. Lang, the Swiss mediator, met recently with Prime Minister Olmert’s chief of staff, and presented him the draft Syrian-Israeli agreement. Olmert’s advisor told him that Israel was not interested.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in November, I wondered whether AIPAC would work to promote a US-Israeli peace initiative with Syria or the Palestinians. AIPAC’s Israel spokesperson responded on November 23rd in Ha’aretz that “AIPAC’s mandate is not to pressure the Israeli government to follow a particular course.” Reading these words, I scratched my head. Who said anything about “pressure?” In reality, the Bush Administration is pressuring the Israeli government to refuse peace talks with Syria, according to the testimony of Prime Minister Olmert, his advisors and cabinet ministers. AIPAC, and its allies in the organized Jewish community, who rush to loudly protest any time there is a whiff of US pressure on Israel in favor of a peace initiative, has absolutely nothing to say when the White House blocks Israel from talking with Syria. Even when the US isn’t making overt demands on Israel, US foreign policy choices have so large an impact on the Middle East and the overall strategic context in which Israel lives, that every action the US takes—and those actions it fails to take—casts an iron boot of coercion on Israel. American choices heavily constrain the Jewish state, eliminating options and creating the environment in which Israel must make its own now far more limited and difficult choices.
The Bush Administration’s military escalation in Iraq, which includes raids and arrests of Iranians, may lead the US down the slippery slope to a new war with Iran, warns Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution. Bush’s actions may provoke “the Iranians to respond, which in turn would escalate the situation and provide the Bush administration with the casus belli it needs to win Congressional support” for such a war, fears Johns Hopkins University Iran scholar Trita Parsi. Bush’s refusal to bargain directly with Iran, his rejection of the unanimous bipartisan recommendation of the Iraq Study Group for direct talks with Iran and Syria, and his preference for more force, are recklessly pushing Israel and our Sunni Arab allies into an incendiary region-wide conflagration with Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. Neither Israel nor the US will achieve their military or political goals in such a clash, which will give birth to an even more insecure and explosive Middle East in which Israel will have to live.
I called, and I call again, on the Bush Administration to return to sanity: to abandon its failed policy of isolation and implied threats of regime change against Syria and Iran; to explore the possibilities for a grand bargain with both countries which would meet US strategic interests in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf Arab states, Israel and Palestine. I call on the President not only to permit Israel to test the waters with Syria through a secret back-channel, but to send American mediators to such meetings to maximize the chances of their success.
Finally, there’s the stifling burden of inaction to which we subject Israel daily: the crushing weight of the Bush Administration’s failure to build a regional diplomatic framework within which Israel can make safe and secure choices for peace with its Arab neighbors; the failure of American Jews to speak up—as American citizens, if not as Jews who are deeply concerned for Israel’s well-being—about what’s best for the national security of the United States and its allies, especially Israel; the timorousness and apathy of so many American Jews who have yet to express their solidarity with the forces of progress and peace in Israel itself, even within the Israeli government. We, the American Jewish community, have massively constrained Israel’s freedom by the many dangerous choices we have let our communal leaders, and our government, make in the Middle East. Citizenship doesn’t end at the voting booth.
Gidon D. Remba is co-author of the forthcoming The Great Rift: Arab-Israeli War and Peace in the New Middle East. His commentary is available at http://tough-dove-israel.blogspot.com/ He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israel Prime Minister’s Office during the Egyptian-Israeli peace process from 1977-1978. His essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times, the Nation, the Jerusalem Report, Ha’aretz, Tikkun, the Forward, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Chicago Jewish News, JUF News, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.