Sunday, May 10, 2009

Some Hilly Real Estate

The US government has expressed, to the Syrians, their clear support for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. Talks between Israel and Syria were being mediated by Turkey late last year but ended abruptly when Operation Cast Lead in Gaza began.

Israel's previous Prime Minister, Olmert, in his explanation of the importance of peace with Syria, noted that Israel's northern border remains a primary area of concern for regional stability and Israeli security. Israel's former foreign minister, Livni, also commented to the effect that for Israel, peace with Syria will require a clear Syrian denunciation of terror and a severing of links to groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas, whose leader actually lives in Damascus. Syria and Iran also recently made a joint statement that they support the Palestinian "resistance" which Israelis read as--attacking Israel, i.e. terrorism.

Things have changed somewhat though. The same day that the US expressed its support for such a peace, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an interview with Russian journalists said that Israel would never give back the Golan heights which were captured in the 1967 Six Day war. This position is not too novel though since the Golan Heights Law which extends Israeli law to the Golan Heights and is widely viewed as Israeli annexation of the region is well known and has been in force since 1981. It is a position antithetical to the Syrian one, however, as Syria has made clear that they will not engage in direct negotiations with Israel until Israel agrees that it will give up the Heights. In other words, unless the concession is made in advance, no direct discussions will take place.

Perhaps such an impasse may be broken by a new "combined approach" that Jordan is now discussing with the US that could see Israel, Lebanon, Syria and others (the US and other Arab states one imagines) come together to try to resolve their differences once and for all. Another question to ask though is, is it worth it to make peace with Syria now?

This question should not be misinterpreted. Of course there should be peace, and fully normalized beneficial relations. This in itself is a goal worth achieving. The Golan is a very emotional issue in Israel and it's not clear that Israel will be getting the right bang for it's buck.

Now, from the Golan, Israel receives invaluable security from a formidable natural barrier on it's northern frontier and a state of the art, top-secret listening post atop Mount Hermon, a peaceful population with a productive agricultural sector including fruit and wine, an important site for tourism, and perhaps most importantly, water resources. The capture of the Golan heights and its subsequent defence in the 1973 war cost Israel a great deal of blood and giving up the region for less than a great deal is seen by some to be a waste of the lives spent to take and hold the hills. Ha Am Im Ha Golan (The Nation Includes the Golan) is a popular slogan in Israel.
Syria is asking that Israel promise to give this region back before direct talks begin. Israel, is asking for, amongst other things, Syria to cut its ties to terrorism and reduce relations with Iran. As for Netanyahu's hard line position: there's no question that this non-starter from the Syrian perspective stops progress towards peace in its tracks. Nonetheless, it is a statement, it can be reversed and one hopes it is merely a hard line negotiation position taken prior to talks and more of a bargaining chip than an irreversible policy.

In a nutshell, the trade seems to be, in addition to peace, Israel will give Syria this land that is so important to it, and Syria will promise not to deal with terrorists anymore, and maybe talk to Iran a bit less (which is a strange thing to ask.) There is no "hot" conflict in the Golan heights so there's no urgency to such an agreement, therefore, there also seems to be little gain for Israel to give up this territory in exchange for promises which may or may not be kept. Support for terrorists does not need to be as overt as it currently is. What stops Syria from officially cutting its ties to Hamas with a wink and a nod and send along money and arms more covertly than it currently does. As for Hizbollah, this Lebanese group with strong ties to Syria not only fights Israel, but plays an important role in Lebanese politics, a game Syria has long been involved in. Cutting their ties to Hizbollah would also mean Syria cutting its ties to an important Lebanese political ally. Syria may not be too keen on taking its fingers out of the cookie jar.

The point is, giving up the Golan for promises not to do something which can easily be done covertly and are within Syria's interests to continue doing seems like a raw deal. Full relations with Syria could be a good thing, and may in the long term, convince Syria that it is not in their interests to support attacks against their new, friend on their southern border. In the interim, however, Israel should not be too quick to bet the farm.


Anonymous said...

You've set the problem with exact precision! However, the question remains: under what conditions or circumstances may peace be achieved? If I read the above correctly, peace between Israel and Syria can only be achieved when:

(1) Iran disappears or there comes forth the sudden efflorescence in Tehran of Western style liberal democracy, complete with a voluntary and, you would agree, rather baffling, renunciation of pursuing an entire branch of science (Nuclear);

(2) The sudden efflorescence in Damascus of Western style liberal democracy, complete with a voluntary and, you would agree, rather baffling, renunciation of pursuing an entire branch of science (Nuclear);

(3) The sudden realization by Hamas that lobbing the occasional rusty pipe across the Gaza border is an incredible waste of time and poor strategy (frankly, I suspect that instead of rockets, if Gazans contented themselves of kicking soccer balls across the border, then maybe some balls might have been kicked back and a friendly football game may have ensued);

(4) Hezbollah willingly and rather curiously abandons more than thirty years of development, having literally manhandled a once dim peasant population that couldn't organize a herd of goats into a major force in Middle-Eastern politics, feared by every nation in the region, including Israel.

(5) The Palestinians inexplicably forfeiting all their rights to their property currently in Israeli hands ( After-all, all these ancient and fading Ottoman and British land and property deeds written in stylish cursive letters, large brass keys once made to fit into antique locks, all now safely and lovingly tucked into Swiss and Lebanese bank safety deposit boxes would have more value as minor curios in a Middle-East Antique Roadshow.

(6) Last but not least, the sudden and miraculous discovery of a fresh water aquifer larger than the Great Lakes.

Although no fault can be discerned in the cold calculus of advantage and disadvantage displayed in your post, displaying a brilliant Kissingerian approach to the issue, it however fails to consider that the problem you set is inherently unsolvable, as set in your post: meaning, if Israel should only make Peace when all the above conditions are met, then I understand your argument to be: Israel should make Peace only when Peace is achieved! Or, if viewed from a less optimistic vantage point, let's set the conditions for peace so as to preclude the possibility for peace.

What is most curious is that Israel has two successful experiences (Egypt and Jordan) with making peace, and in both cases, the 'cold calculus' made way for the "leap of faith", and Israel did not have problems exchanging land for "good behaviour". Why not a third lead of faith? After-all, all the parties involved know what the solution is... as they are fond of saying in that part of the world, "it is written".

As a final point, I fail to understand why Israel would choose to make peace later rather than sooner. It's not like the Arab countries around it and the Palestinians are going to conveniently disappear. After-all, peace now, when the Israel-Palestinian population ratio is still 80/20, will look much different than peace at 60/40, or 50/50, or, horrors of horrors, 51/49, as may occur within a couple of generations (case in point, look at Lebanon, which went from a 60/40 ratio to 25/75 ratio within a generation and half).

PS. This comment was longer than I anticipated, and, I admit, ranged rather farther that the strict limits of your post. Apologies.

PS2. I really like this blog. Your posts are always interesting and well researched.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

First of all, thank you very much for the praise and for letting me know you enjoy the blog. I enjoy writing it, so I'm glad to know someone out there likes to read it. In a shameless request, I'd say if you enjoy it, feel free to share it with anyone else you know who may like it. I will say though, I'm not sure how much i like being compared to Kissenger!

You make a point that I struggle with when I think of the situation (as though I have any real say in the matter!) Specifically, the calculus is such that Israel is in a position where for peace with any of its neighbours, it must trade a tangible asset which guarantees it certain securities for an intangible guarantee. If I were an Israeli, this is something that would not sit easily with me. You're quite right though to point to historical examples, where with Jordan, for one, significant territory was not exchanged but agreements were made for water (which can be made with Syria as well.) On the other hand, in the Egyptian case, it's true that huge amounts of land were given up, and it's true that the peace treaty has prevented any major conflict between Egypt and Israel, but Israelis complain how a blind eye is turned towards arms smuggling from the Sinai into Gaza. The same sort of thing can happen in the north. It's worth pointing out though, that it does not seem that Egypt is sponsoring the weapons smuggling. Egypt, however, did not have the same political interests in sponsoring terror against Israel as Syria has in sponsoring Hizbollah.

The fact is, the conditions you lay out are not likely to happen anytime soon. That being said, why wait? Let's move ahead with the "peace of the brave" (as I think Arafat called it) and work towards a thaw in relations and take that leap of faith. This will take somewhat less intransigence though on the part of Damascus--meaning, a willingness to talk with no pre-conditions--and a statement by Israel that nothing is off the table (as opposed to everything is on the table) in order to achieve a stable, workable, lasting peace.

I would just make one last remark about your comment. While it may be true that rockets from Gaza are actually rusty pipes, and I don't think you meant to make light of these rockets, the way these things are referred to is significant. These are rusty pipes packed with explosives and shrapnel designed to kill as many civilians as possible. They're rusty pipes, but rusty pipes that kill.

Again, thanks for your comment and I hope to see you commenting again in the future.