The imminent resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, announced this week, resurrects the possibility of a historic agreement ending five decades of conflict between the two nations.
During the final years of the Rabin government in Israel, significant progress in these talks had clearly been achieved. But with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, they collapsed completely. While the Syrians insisted that talks proceed from where they left off in February 1996, Netanyahu demanded a return to ground zero.
The sticking-point was the return of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. The Syrian government has maintained, and reports in the Israeli press confirm, that Rabin accepted in principle that a full peace would include the return of the entire Golan Heights. The Israeli government has maintained that no such commitment was ever made, but the terms under which the new negotiations are starting indicate that an ultimate withdrawal to the borders of June 4, 1967, will in fact be the underlying premise of the talks.
Simply put, without an assurance to this effect, the Syrians would not be returning to the table.
Israel must, as Nelson Mandela reminded them in his recent visit, be willing to “pay the price of peace.” Israel’s leading newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Ha’aretz, have already called on the government to accept a full withdrawal from all occupied Syrian territory in exchange for a full peace. Indeed, this is the model of the treaties already concluded with Egypt and Jordan, and the Syrians have consistently made it clear that they would accept nothing less.
The outstanding issues are likely to be water and security arrangements. There are ample precedents for overcoming such obstacles. The Camp David Treaty between Israel and Egypt provides the model for sharing natural resources, in that case the oil reserves in the Sinai Peninsula. It also provides a model for the removal of Israeli settlers from occupied territories. Security arrangements could involve staged Israeli withdrawals, a demilitarization of the area or the presence of multinational observers.
Ehud Barak, Hafez al-Assad and Bill Clinton all have strong incentives to close this deal. For Assad, who is ailing, an honorable peace with Israel and the recovery of Syrian territory, lost during his tenure as defense minister, would be a crowning moment in his career. As Clinton’s own term in office comes to an end, any significant international accomplishment would help keep the Lewinsky affair from dominating his
legacy. Perhaps, as with Richard Nixon, personal foibles notwithstanding, foreign policies achievements could confer upon him the mantle of respected statesman. And for Barak, whose “red line” demands and settlement expansions have made progress with the Palestinians all but impossible, a Syria deal could gain him the stature of peacemaker.
A deal with Syria would also facilitate Israel’s withdrawal from its quagmire in South Lebanon, which Barak promised to achieve within one year of his election. An unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was ordered in 1978 by U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 but has been ignored for decades. The Lebanese government, backed by Syria, has made repeated assurances that it will secure its southern border if Israel withdraws. Hezbollah, the resistance movement founded in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation, would have no reason to maintain its military activities.
Complaints about existing Arab-Israeli accords tend to emphasize that they lead only to a “cold peace” and that in spite of the absence of conflict, resentment and ill will continue. This is because Arabs cannot be unaffected by the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people. No Syrian-Israeli treaty will assuage these sentiments. No matter how many treaties are signed between Israel and Arab nations, until the Israelis and Palestinians find an equitable means to share what is historically, geographically and economically the same land, continuing conflict is inevitable.
Whether through the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state in all of the occupied territories, or, infinitely preferably, through the development of a single secular, democratic republic for all Israelis and Palestinians, genuine Arab-Israeli peace and reconciliation can emerge only where the conflict began – in Palestine. A Syrian-Israeli treaty should help to clarify this simple fact.