Thursday, September 7, 2006

Pax Syriana Redux, by Gidon D. Remba

Pax Syriana Redux


Gidon D. Remba

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
September 7, 2006

No sooner had the Lebanon cease-fire taken hold when Israel’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz proposed peace talks with Syria. The critics pounced on him forthwith: the novice minister, notorious for his lack of security experience, “jumped the gun,” showing that he had as much to learn about the art of diplomacy as he did about the art of war.

But was it Peretz’s want of diplomatic and security credentials that accounted for the novitiate minister’s call for talks with Syria? Soon after Peretz spoke, Avi Dichter, Israel’s hawkish Internal Security Minister and former chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service, opined: “In exchange for peace with Syria, Israel can leave the Golan Heights…[returning] to the international border. We have paid similar territorial prices for peace with Jordan and Egypt.”

“A process of discussions with Syria is legitimate…and very suitable,” he went on. “Israel can initiate it. Ultimately, initiatives of this kind are [conducted by] a third party - and there is an abundance of third parties in the world. If a third party approaches us, we must reply in the affirmative. Any political process is preferable to a military-fighting process, be it with Syria or with Lebanon,” concluded Dichter.

Echoing Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni suddenly appointed Ya’akov Dayan as a special “project manager” for possible negotiations with Syria. Dayan wasted no time meeting with officials who headed Israel’s Syrian negotiations team under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak in the mid and late 1990s. Dayan has been tasked with presenting Livni “with a document detailing the chances for resuming the diplomatic dialogue with Syria in light of Syrian and Israeli positions on …borders, security and normalization,” reported Ha’aretz. Knesset Member Danny Yatom, a former Mossad director and chief of the IDF’s Central Command, has been among those in the Labor Party calling for engagement with Syria.

Prime Minister Olmert, portrayed by some as having slapped down any diplomatic exchange with Syria, actually left the door ajar: “I will negotiate only when Syria undergoes fundamental change with regard to its open support for terrorism.” If Syria stopped aiding Hezbollah and Hamas, Olmert was indicating Israel’s readiness to resume the peace talks aborted in 2000. Now Peretz has again urged that Israel “do everything possible to create the conditions for a dialogue with the Palestinians and on the Syrian front as well.”

Were Peretz’s remarks the musings of a dilettante? If so, he was in illustrious company. Were Peretz, Dichter, Olmert and Livni’s moves nothing more than the uncoordinated ramblings of unruly and irresponsible ministers? Or did they reflect a recognition among many in the Israeli government that the strategic benefits for Israel of a resumption of talks with Syria could be unparalleled?

Why now? Why would the Israeli government signal openness to Syria in the wake of a war with Hezbollah that looked, at best, like a Pyrrhic victory for Israel, and at worst like a win for Hezbollah? The timing of Israel’s message could not have been more propitious. It was, if anything, long overdue. If the cease-fire is to hold, if Hezbollah’s “victory” is to be transformed into a resounding defeat, if Israel is to snatch political triumph from the uncertain jaws of combat, there could be no greater boon to Israeli security than to offer Syria a potent political incentive to dry up Hezbollah’s weapons flow from Iran and Syria, to withdraw Syria’s backing for Hamas and re-align itself with the West, isolating Iran. The US and Israel adopted just such a strategy when Egypt was wooed away from the Soviet orbit into a peace treaty with Israel and an alliance with the US three decades ago. With the promise of US and European economic rewards, and the prospect of regaining the Golan Heights taken by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war, Bashar Assad, the young Syrian president, might achieve for his nation what his father Hafez had failed to accomplish in a lifetime.

It behooves us to recall that before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat issued his public offer to talk peace with Israel in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Begin sent messages to Sadat through various secret channels via President Carter and Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu that Israel was prepared to make major territorial concessions in return for a full peace treaty, and inviting Sadat to meet Begin. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan traveled incognito to Morocco to meet Sadat’s deputy prime minister, Hasan Tuhami, who informed Sadat that Israel would agree to a complete withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for full peace. The secret diplomacy gave Sadat the confidence to issue his public offer to talk peace with Israel, leading to his historic visit and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

If such behind-the-scenes messages are not being carried by third parties between Israel and Syria today, they will be tomorrow. These efforts, combined with the Israeli government’s public willingness to entertain full withdrawal for full peace with Syria and a resumption of negotiations, are the best way to examine Syria’s intentions. If Assad stanches Hezbollah’s weapons flow, and his rhetoric softens, we can expect the clandestine dialogue—and the public denials—to intensify, and Assad to take further steps forward, leading eventually to an eruption of overt diplomacy.

Only a rank political and military amateur would fail to thoroughly test the waters now for prying Syria away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, dealing a body blow to radical Islamism. There is no task more urgent. But will the Bush Administration abandon reckless fantasies of Syrian regime change—which could bring Islamists to power or chaos—and play ball?