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The Door has Closed on Syrian-Israeli Negotiations

Written by The Daily Star, Jan. 29, 2008

The prospect of a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement looms over the Arab-Israel and larger Middle Eastern arenas as a potentially significant but ever elusive issue. On the eve of the Annapolis conference, the dormant Israeli-Syrian track seemed infused with new life; a few weeks later it appears blocked yet again. Such fluctuations are not new to this track. At the height of the post-Madrid peace process, when the Clinton administration and four Israeli prime ministers actually gave the Syrian track preference over the Palestinian track, several intense efforts were invested in achieving a Syrian-Israeli deal. They ended in failure and tilted the peace process toward the Palestinians and Jordan.

During the first six years of the current decade, the Israeli-Syrian track seemed to have lost all relevance due to the convergence of several developments: First, President Hafez Assad's death and his son and successor's failure to establish himself as an authoritative figure; second, Ariel Sharon's ascent to power in Israel and his determination to focus on the Palestinian issue and reluctance to withdraw from the Golan; third, the transformation of the Syrian-Iranian alliance and partnership of the 1990s into an unequal relationship between an Iranian senior and a Syrian junior partner; and fourth, the deterioration of Syria's relationship with the Bush administration, initially in 2003 over Iraq and then, in 2005, over Lebanon.

The Bush administration's and the American president's personal animosity toward Syria and President Bashar Assad was such that when Sharon's successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, began to tinker with the idea of renewing negotiations with Syria, he was told in no uncertain terms by Washington that the Bush administration objected to a diplomatic initiative that would help Syria steer its way out of isolation and rebuild its legitimacy in the international arena.

But as noted above, this seemed to change on the eve of the Annapolis conference. It may seem odd that a conference devoted to the Palestinian issue would serve to revive interest in the Syrian track. But in the event, it was precisely the State Department's fear that Syria would sabotage the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that led to the renewal of a limited American-Syrian dialogue.

An understanding was worked out that consisted of three elements. First, Syria would participate in the Annapolis conference, thus enhancing its legitimacy. Second, Annapolis would still be solely devoted to the Palestinian issue, but clear references would be made to the need for a "comprehensive" settlement and to Syria's own turn farther down the road. And third, Syria tightened control over its border with Iraq and may also have promised to help resolve the political institutional crisis in Lebanon.

This trend was reinforced by parts of the Israeli government, particularly those linked to the security establishment that called for renewal of negotiations with Syria. Some of their arguments echoed the reasoning of the 1990s: It was easier to conclude an agreement with a state like Syria than to resolve the complex national conflict with the Palestinians. Other arguments were new, shaped by current realities: Beyond resolving the bilateral conflict, a deal with Damascus would detach Syria from Iran and Hizbullah, transform the strategic equation in the region and diminish if not eliminate the challenge faced by Israel in and from Lebanon.

In fact, intermediaries were employed by Israel to explore the prospect of such a deal with Syria, but to no avail. Assad's position is clear and unchanging: Syria is willing to renew negotiations based on the foundation built in the 1990s. Furthermore, it is not satisfied with the hypothetical, conditional "deposit" presented then by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin but wants a "commitment" to withdraw from the Golan in return for a "cold peace." Such an agreement must be bilateral, and "preconditions" concerning relations with Iran or other parties are unacceptable.

The narrow opening offered by Annapolis now seems to have closed. The main reason is Lebanon, where Syria continues to meddle, intimidate and even kill in order to preserve and restore its position. This is totally unacceptable to President George W. Bush, who sees the survival and success of the Siniora government as a high priority. With this frame of mind, and in view of the priority the president and his secretary of state assign to completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before the end of 2008, the prospect of American willingness to invest in the revival of a Syrian-Israeli negotiating track is remote.

In Israel, Prime Minister Olmert, bracing for the publication of the Winograd Report and fighting to keep the right-wing parties in his coalition (unhappy as they are with the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians), is hardly likely to open yet another political front with the powerful (and presently dormant) Golan lobby.

It is important to remember that this discussion of the ups and downs of the Israel-Syria diplomatic option is being conducted in the ominous shadow of potential military escalation. Assad has stated several times that while he is seeking to renew negotiations with Israel he is also building a military option. Israel's destruction of a nuclear reactor in its early stages in northeastern Syria last September 6 served to demonstrate how determined and far-reaching Syria's quest for "strategic parity" with Israel can be.

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria, is the Ettinger professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University. His new book, "The View from Damascus," is due this spring. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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