Thursday, September 16, 2010

Can Israel Make Peace With Syria?

By Patrick Seale
With growing insistence, some influential Israelis are beginning to press the Netanyahu government to seek to make peace with Syria -- even if the price-tag is the return of the entire Golan to Syrian sovereignty.
The latest example of this campaign is an interview which Major-General (res.) Uri Saguy, 66, gave on 11 June to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot, in which he declared that “I believe that a political agreement between Syria and Israel is a military national interest of the highest order.”
Of all Israelis, whether soldiers or civilians, Saguy can probably claim to have the greatest first-hand knowledge of the Syrian file. He fought on the Golan Heights in both the 1967 and 1973 wars, and was wounded twice. He commanded the elite Golani brigade, was head of the General Staff’s operations department in the 1982 Lebanon war, served as head of Southern Command, and then as chief of military intelligence from 1991 to 1995. He has advised several Israeli prime ministers on Syria and, a decade ago, when the two countries were talking, conducted face-to-face negotiations with Syrian officials.
He now urges that talks with Damascus should resume. He also criticizes Ehud Barak for not making peace with Syria when, as Prime Minister in 2000, he had the chance to do so -- but backed away. Saguy calls that “a missed opportunity of deep historic significance.”
Saguy insists that an essential precondition for the start of negotiations with Syria, and for peace to be achievable, would be a declaration of Israeli willingness to withdraw to the 4 June 1967 lines. This was the essence of the so-called “Rabin deposit in the American pocket” -- the verbal pledge which, before his assassination by an Israeli fanatic in November 1995, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave to the Americans in 1994. His pledge of full withdrawal from the Golan was, of course, conditional on Israeli requirements being met in the areas of security, borders, water and normalization.
In the event, Rabin himself delayed honoring his pledge until it was too late, while Barak, in turn, got cold feet when he was faced with the same crucial decision.
In the interview, Saguy was asked whether Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s present prime minister, could make peace with Syria. “I don’t know about his will,” he replied. “He has the ability, both personally and politically. But he has to decide that is the goal. There will not be a more favourable political situation. Barak [now defense minister] is with him and the opposition will support it if there is a reasonable agreement.”
Israel’s leaders, Saguy said, had to grasp that a political agreement with Syria was “a primary interest of Israel.” Israel could not depend on military power alone. If there were another war, Israel would probably win it, but then after the war “we will be talking about the same things.” He added that “not deciding [to proceed with talks] is also a decision. Of course, it increases the chance of a military confrontation.”
Saguy’s message is clear: “We have to find a way,” he said, “to have secret meetings [with Syria] to ascertain whether there is a basis to renew negotiations.”
Why is a highly-experienced Israeli soldier like Saguy pressing for a deal with Syria? Other key Israeli security chiefs are also said to share his views -- notably Gaby Ashkenazi, the Chief of Staff, Yuval Diskin, head of the internal security service Shabak, and Meir Dagan, head of the spy agency Mossad. What are their motives? Undoubtedly, they are worried by the sharp deterioration of Israel’s image in the world -- including in the United States. Dagan is reported to have told the Israeli cabinet that Israel was no longer an asset for the U.S., but had become a burden.
A more immediate Israeli strategic aim is to wean Syria away from its alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran -- a country many Israelis see as a dangerous regional rival and a major potential security threat. If Syria could be neutralized by a peace treaty -- so the Israeli argument goes -- then the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis would collapse and Israel’s regional dominance would be re-established. The fact that Turkey has now joined Syria and Iran in a de facto partnership has heightened Israel’s alarm.
An allied Israeli aim is clearly to curb Palestinian ambitions and militancy. If Syria were to make a separate peace with Israel, the Palestinians would be greatly enfeebled and would have to accept whatever crumbs -- in the form of West Bank Bantustans --Israel chose to throw at them. Without Syrian backing, Hamas in Gaza could eventually be tamed by a continued blockade. These would seem to be the Israeli calculations.
The late President Hafiz al-Asad was ready to make peace -- with Rabin in the mid-1990s and with Barak in 2000 -- because the then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had made his own separate deal with Israel at Oslo in 1993. But that situation no longer obtains. The Oslo deal is dead. America’s efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have so far yielded nothing. Israel’s appetite for Arab East Jerusalem and for more land on the West Bank remains uncontrolled. Meanwhile, Palestinians are demanding their rights with ever greater insistence and international support.
So could President Bashar al-Asad, in these circumstances, conclude a separate peace if Israel were ready to withdraw from the whole of the Golan? He answered this question with great clarity in an important interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on 25 May.
“If Israel will return the Golan,” he declared, “we cannot say no. But only a comprehensive agreement, which includes the Palestinians, will guarantee real peace… An agreement limited to Syria and Israel will leave the Palestinian issue unresolved. Rather than peace, it will be a truce.” The Syrian president is evidently not hopeful about the prospects for peace. “It will not happen in the near future,” he said. “Israel, right now, is not ready for an agreement. … Israeli society has moved too far to the right…Everybody knows that those talks [mediated by George Mitchell, the American Special Envoy’] will lead nowhere. The Arabs know it, the Palestinians know it, even the Americans.”
Instead, President Bashar is taking comfort in what he describes as “an agreement between Middle Eastern powers to redesign the regional order.” He calls this “a new geostrategic map, which aligns Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia, brought together by shared policies, interests and infrastructure.”
Very probably, it is precisely the emergence of this new geostrategic map, unfavourable to Israel, which is causing General Uri Saguy and other prominent Israelis to lobby for peace with Syria, even at the cost of returning the Golan.