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Markers on the Route to Damaskus

Written by The American Interest, Jan. 2, 2007 From my recent article in Ha’aretz: In 1974, the Agranat Commission published its report, which examined the principal failures and the secondary failures that led to the Yom Kippur War. Inter alia, the commission recommended that, in order to prevent future mistaken “conceptions”, the pluralism of intelligence assessments in Israel should be strengthened by reinforcing the research divisions of the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry. This recommendation was implemented only partially; Military Intelligence maintained its dominance for many years. The authors of the Agranat Report are currently enjoying a late blooming of sorts as decision makers, Knesset members and the general public are being exposed to public disputes between the heads of the Mossad and of MI’s research division. While the former dismisses the “peace offensive” of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime, his uniformed colleague regards it in a positive light. Appearing last week before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mossad director Meir Dagan stated that he could not see Syria proposing the renewal of talks with Israel. In contrast, the head of MI’s research division, Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, this week told the very same committee that Syria’s peace signals are genuine. This disagreement has added to the confusion that has existed regarding a peace agreement with Syria since last summer’s second Lebanon War. During the six years preceding that war and after both the collapse of Israeli-American-Syrian talks and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Israel focused on the Palestinian Issue, first on fighting the second intifada and then on disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The Lebanon War and the exposure of the threat posed by the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis generated a fundamental debate over the Syrian question. While the war was still in progress, Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke of the need to renew negotiations with Syria, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a small team to study this issue. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert totally rejects the idea of talks with the Syrians. He has declared that Israel will never withdraw from the Golan Heights and has explained both directly and indirectly that the Bush administration opposes Israeli-Syrian negotiations. In recent days, Olmert has softened his public proclamations on this matter. The two opposing schools in the internal cabinet debate and in the public debate in Israel can be characterized thus: Opposition to any peace settlement or talks with Syria As in every debate on these topics, the disagreement revolves around intentions and capabilities. The opponents of an agreement claim that Syria under Bashar Assad will continue to demand a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a cold peace and partial security arrangements. While some people reject a withdrawal from the Golan in principle, others believe that Assad’s intentions are not serious and that his capabilities are limited. In other words, Assad is interested only in talks, not a settlement, because he wants to cease being an isolated pariah. In any event, he is incapable of actually effecting a settlement with Israel. Thus, if Israel agreed to talks with Syria, this would create tension with the United States, alienate the conservative Arab states and heighten domestic tensions, producing no tangible results for Israel and political dividends for Syria. Support for Israeli-Syrian talks This school argues that Assad is interested in serious negotiations and an agreement with Israel, and has the will and the ability to effect a settlement. Furthermore, this school argues, it is in Israel’s interests to attain a settlement with Syria, even at the cost of withdrawing from the Golan, because it would regularize relations with an important Arab state and potential military enemy; may help solve “the Lebanese problem”; would weaken the Palestinian rejectionist front and even help Syria to disengage from the Iranian sphere of influence. The United States and the conservative Arab states would presumably change their position once they see Iran lose one of its chief levers of influence in the region. To understand the significance of the debate between the two schools, the respective positions of the three chief players in the Israeli-American-Syrian triangle should be analyzed: The Olmert government Olmert is Ariel Sharon’s successor on the Syrian issue as well. Four Israeli prime ministers in the 1990s (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) were prepared to withdraw from the Golan in order to reach an agreement with Syria and to base the peace process on the Syrian, rather than the Palestinian, track. Sharon, however, chose to focus on the Palestinian issue and adamantly opposed a Golan withdrawal. Olmert was elected prime minister on a platform calling for continued disengagement from the Palestinians. Although the Lebanon War temporarily diverted him from this course, he wants to breathe new life into the Palestinian channel. Olmert believes that progress with the Palestinians is vital to building a de facto coalition with the conservative Arab states against the principal threat to both them and Israel Iran. However, after trying to free himself from Assad’s “peace offensive” for several months, Olmert has modified his thinking and no longer totally rejects the idea. Instead, he is stipulating certain preconditions for the initiation of talks. Nonetheless, he clearly still prefers the Palestinian channel. He apparently believes his government lacks the political capacity to achieve a final settlement with Syria, whereas progress can still be made with the Palestinians in the form of interim settlements. The Bush Administration President George Bush and the hard core of his administration have opposed in the past, and continue to oppose, the renewal of Israeli-Syrian talks. The Baker-Hamilton report, which calls for talks with Iran and Syria, has in effect been rejected by the administration and has encountered opposition and criticism from other circles as well. President Bush is personally angry with Assad. He holds Assad and his regime responsible for the shedding of American blood in Iraq and considers them the chief threat to the “democratic revolution” in Lebanon, which he regards as one of the major achievements of his ideological foreign policy. In his eyes, the initiation of Israeli-Syrian talks would award a terrorist regime and be a slap in the face to the conservative Arab states that have friendly relations with America. This approach is reinforced by a personal negative attitude toward Assad and a low estimate of his capabilities. Assad and his regime Even without access to intelligence material, one can conclude that Assad personally wants to initiate talks with Israel, and not just because of his desire to end his isolation and to free himself from American and French pressure. Like any other country, Syria has a public opinion, and that public wants to know what the regime is doing to win back the Golan. Egypt has retrieved the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan has ended its conflict with Israel, the Palestinians have attained some partial achievements, and Israel has withdrawn from South Lebanon. However, regarding the Golan, Israel is talking about expanding its construction activities there. The critics of Assad’s regime are demanding that it either go to war or initiate negotiations. Assad’s capabilities are not all that clear. Some people in the Baath regime oppose the idea of a peace settlement with Israel, arguing that peace and openness will destroy the foundations of both the Baath regime and Alawi rule. This opposition existed even during Hafez Assad’s regime; but, he was able to exercise power and authority that allowed him to overcome it. (During the last months of his life, the opposition strengthened and came to the surface). Will Bashar be able to neutralize the opponents of a peace settlement if negotiations are launched and if progress is made in those talks? This remains an open question. In light of the above, Israel’s policies should rest on three fundamental principles: A conditional “yes,” not an outright rejection No Israeli government should ever issue a categorical “no” to an Arab enemy that has declared a desire for peace. Nor should preconditions be presented that amount to a de facto rejection. If talks are initiated between Israel and Syria and if progress is made in those talks, Israel could justifiably demand the termination of Syrian aid to Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If such demands were presented as a precondition for the initiation of talks, the response would be a total Syrian refusal. Coordination with the United States The Bush administration’s opposition to negotiations with Syria should not be taken lightly. However, if Israel concludes that such talks make sense and could be beneficial, it can initiate a serious discussion with the Americans on the advantages and drawbacks of such a move. For its part, Washington would not take lightly the serious prospect (if such a prospect emerges) of distancing Damascus from Tehran. A discreet inquiry The three agreements Israel signed with Arab partners (Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians) were attained following clandestine negotiations in which the principles of the arrangement were defined. It would be pointless to embark on full, open negotiations with Syria before a discreet inquiry has been made. It would have to address such key issues as Syria’s readiness to make good on its declarations and to end its partnership with Iran as part of a settlement with Israel and a process of reconciliation with the United States. Two obstacles stand in the way: Syria’s desire for public negotiations and the difficulty involved in maintaining secrecy on the Israeli side. The Israeli government has two main options: It can progress along the Palestinian channel, which would make it easier to build a de facto partnership with the conservative Arab states against Iran, or it can initiate talks with Syria, if it emerges that these talks have the potential for distancing Syria from Iran and for distancing Iran from Lebanon. A discreet inquiry with Syria would enable the Prime Minister to choose between the two options and to broadcast to the Israeli public a clear message that would perhaps put an end to the confusion and havoc that currently prevail. Prof. Rabinovich is the president of Tel Aviv University, and in the past served as the Israeli Ambassador in Washington and the head of the negotiating team with Syria.

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