Tipping the First Domino: An Israeli-Syrian Agreement

The Israeli daily, Yediot Ahoronot reported recently that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, had reassessed its view on Syria’s sincerity in seeking talks with Israel. Mossad now agrees with all the other branches of Israeli intelligence that the Syrian overtures are sincere and that Israel should put Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s willingness to the test.

The potential benefits of an agreement between Syria and Israel are enormous for many parties. The United States is one of those parties, although one of the few players who stand to lose from such an agreement are the neoconservatives and hawks in the Bush administration. There are also real obstacles to an agreement, especially in the arenas of domestic politics in Israel and the US. But the chief factor blocking Israel-Syria talks at this time is the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow them. This is not something often talked about, which is not surprising–one can only picture the response of the overwhelming majority of Jews to the news that the US is blocking Israel-Arab peace talks that Israel desires.

Yet for all the difficulties, a deal with Syria is a lot easier to attain for Israel than one with the Palestinians, and it might have just as many, maybe even a few more, benefits for Israel as well as the region as a whole.

The Ground On Which To Build An Israel-Syria Agreement

To understand the potential benefits, we must first understand where we are now. The Middle East as a whole is engulfed in burning conflicts, simmering conflicts and growing potential for conflict. The ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Sudan, the deepening tensions in Lebanon and growing concerns over increasingly tense situations in Bahrain, other Gulf states, Egypt and even to some extent, Saudi Arabia make this always explosive region all the more so. The fuse that is sitting too close to the flame is Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Though not always reported, there are multiple, daily incidents of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank as well as ongoing clashes between Fatah and Hamas as well as other Palestinian factions from time to time. Israel’s deepening of the infrastructure of the occupation makes matters worse. The wall continues to be built, Palestinian land continues to be appropriated and Israel continues to discuss its plans to hold onto various chunks of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Promised relief from checkpoints and settlement “outposts” has not materialized, echoing for Palestinians the Oslo years when Israeli promises of peace were accompanied by a massive acceleration in settlement expansion.

Israelis have, in the past seven years suffered through both the worst violence with the Palestinians that they’ve seen since 1948 and the most extensive damage caused by a cross-border nemesis since that same time. Mahmoud Abbas is not even considering any attempt at restoring Palestinian unity and is on the “hot seat” to produce some tangible results before Palestinian misery erupts in violence again. This time, that violence may not be limited to Israel, but could well threaten the surrounding region and intra-Palestinian violence may become more devastating than Israeli attacks.

Iran’s position also greatly magnifies the volatility of the situation. On the one hand, Iran’s influence in the region has grown substantially. Its traditional buffer, Iraq, lies in ruins. It has greatly increased its ties with and support of both Hezbollah and Syria. The rise of the Iraqi Shi’a to an advantageous position in what is left of Iraq has also opened at least the potential for Iranian agitation and inspiration of Shi’a in Iraq as well as those living in oil-rich areas of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Iran’s position, however, is also more unstable than at any time in its recent history. It finds itself in the US’ cross hairs, so despite its enhanced position regionally, it feels less secure. Iran’s attempts over the past ten years to re-ingratiate itself to the United States have consistently failed and been undermined both by neoconservative forces and by its own strategic decision to pursue rapprochement with the US while maintaining, and at times even increasing its bombastic and hostile rhetoric towards Israel.

All of this adds up to a situation where the Middle East is potentially on the precipice of violent conflagration that would be mind-boggling even for this troubled and war-torn region. The status quo must be shifted radically to avoid this. That status quo will not hold, one way or the other; the only question is whether it will be changed through negotiations and diplomacy or by radical conflict.

Syria: The Way Out?

There is a common wisdom that the key to unraveling the quagmire of the Middle East is resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s true, of course, but for all the prodding toward the upcoming Annapolis conference, it doesn’t seem like either Israel or the Palestinians are in position to strike a deal. The Israeli public is more angry and fearful of the Palestinians than ever and the Palestinians are split. Both sides are led by weak leaders whom few believe can either reach the needed agreements or gather the needed support from skeptical publics and parliaments even if they do.

One of the benefits that a deal with Syria may reap could well be easing the difficult conditions under which the Israel-Palestinian dispute is being negotiated. But what is certain is that a deal with Syria will change the playing field. Predicting the future is a dangerous business. Unintended consequences and unexpected events always crop up. But let’s see what could potentially come of a deal between Israel and Syria.

An agreement between Israel and Syria would be based on the full return of the Golan Heights to Syria. In exchange, Syria would fully normalize relations with Israel, and would also agree to assist in disarming Hezbollah, close all offices of Palestinian militant groups and cease support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Syria would need no prodding to remove itself from its association with Iran. The alliance between the secular, Allawi-led Syrian government and the theocratic, Shi’a government in Iran has always been an uncomfortable one for both parties, a marriage born of necessity due to the isolation of both countries. But Syria and Iran have significantly different ideologies, long-term interests and political and diplomatic systems. Syria would be much happier being welcomed, as it would certainly be, back into the Arab fold. It would continue to work to influence events in Lebanon, whether through Hezbollah or through other pro-Syrian groups in that country, but it would no longer need an armed militia at its call to harass Israel and would have no reason not to content itself with political agitation.

Syria does not have absolute command of Hezbollah. They can cut off support, cease serving as a way station for Iranian supplies to Hezbollah and pressure them to disarm and become a political party, but the response to these actions is completely in Hezbollah’s hands. But whether or not it complies with Syrian pressure to disarm, Hezbollah’s supplies from Syria would be cut and its ability to receive aid from Iran would be compromised. While this would not resolve the political issues that grip Lebanon, it would measurably reduce the violent dimension of those squabbles.

With the defeat of Iraq, a Syrian-Israeli peace would mean that the entire Arab world would be in the “pro-Western” camp. While full cooperation in combating terrorism would still hinge upon a resolution of the issue of Palestine, the Arab regimes would be officially on the same page on this issue, both de facto and de jure. While elements in many Arab countries, in some cases powerful elements, would continue to support radical groups, the governments, all of which would be threatened by such groups (indeed, it would almost certainly be the case that al-Qaeda and similar groups would do everything they could to disrupt such an Arab entente), would be united in their opposition.

The issue of Palestine would remain a problem. But without Syrian backing, Hamas and other, similar groups would have a hard time rejecting the Arab League framework. Active Syrian participation in diplomacy might also help the Palestinians heal the rift between Hamas and Fatah, a necessary pre-condition for arriving at a sustainable agreement between themselves and Israel. But the incentives for the Arab League to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, already considerable, would be exponentially boosted.

Iran

The elephant in the room remains Iran. As I pointed out in an earlier piece, Iran is a country that is not understood at all well in the United States. Israel has a somewhat better grasp of Iran, but both Israel and Iran have spent the better part of the past quarter-century hurling bombastic rhetoric at one another. Until relatively recently, indeed, long after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran and Israel would do clandestine business with each other, despite neither liking nor trusting each other. They were competitors even in the days of the Shah, to some extent, but had never come close to direct conflict until the coming of the neocons and the invasion of Iraq. This was yet another neoconservative “contribution” to Israel’s security.

Iran’s tendency has always been geared much more toward defensive actions than offensive ones. Even when they are arming groups like Hezbollah, they do so quietly and without attempting or endeavoring to wield the sort of influence that Syria has had in Lebanon, for example. Their ambitions are pointed at regional leadership, attained through Islamic rule. But Iran has also generally been mistrusted by Arabs, and even today, its alliance with the likes of Syria and Hamas are matters of necessity. Their Shi’a leadership is seen as a threat by most Arab rulers, and a considerable portion of the Arab street sees things similarly.

Iran also desires to end its isolation and engage not only with Europe, but with the United States as well. What has tripped it up in the past was its refusal to recognize Israel. Iran’s alienation from the US has its very deep roots in the hostage crisis of 1980, a crisis which the theocratic leadership did not create, but which they did decide to endorse, for fear that not doing so would undermine their new revolutionary government. Since the resolution of that crisis, Iran has made more than a few attempts to repair its relationship with the US. But it was not until George W. Bush’s presidency that it sent a clear signal that recognition of Israel could be a part of that approach, and by then, with the neocons having so much influence, it was too late.

The failure of the attempts at rapprochement was a factor in the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and things have gone downhill from there. But the point here is that Iran desperately wants to end its international isolation. The hostile rhetoric it has employed against Israel has largely been motivated by their desire to win over the Arabs. This is not to say that Iran has not been active in its opposition to Israel–their support of Hezbollah is sufficient proof of that. But Khomeini himself was always more than willing to do business with Israel as long as it was clandestine and did not jeopardize their efforts at ingratiating Iran to the Arabs. While they have vacillated over the years in whether they were aiming at the hearts of the Arab masses or the Arab leaders, it is not Iran’s intention to see their anti-Zionism, however ideologically genuine it might be, isolate them from, rather than enhance their status with the Arabs.

Thus, there is every possibility that an agreement with Syria would also lead to Iran to help resolve, rather than intensify, the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The Key and the Stumbling Block

The key is the Golan Heights. The biggest stumbling block to a deal between Israel and Syria on full peace and normalization between the two countries is domestic politics, both in the US and Israel.

In the US, the Bush Administration may have fewer neoconservatives in visible positions, but the neocon disdain for diplomatic solutions remains. It is therefore disinclined to trust a process of negotiation with a spoke in the “axis of evil.” Bush has also invested some stock in the Israel-Palestinian track and part of that strategic thrust is to isolate, not talk with Syria.

But the domestic obstacles to a deal with Syria are much more serious in Israel. Despite the fact that a deal with Syria has been close on a number of occasions, giving up the Golan Heights causes a great deal of worry among Israelis.

Even though Israel has held the Golan for forty years, the national memory still holds the image of Syrian mortars being lobbed at Israeli kibbutzim from the high ground of the Golan before the 1967 war. This is a visceral feeling that is not easily overcome by modern military realities that have seriously diminished the threat of holding the high ground outside of a direct battle and the fact that security guarantees preventing such a situation from recurring are easily enforced.

There is also the concern of precedent, one which rose both with the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and from Gaza. In each case, the concern was that setting a precedent of giving up territory would lead to more territorial concessions. In the case of the Golan, this is even more intense because the Golan has long since been annexed to Israel. It is, for all intents and purposes, part of Israel. The former Syrians living there are not under occupation, but are citizens of Israel. If Israel can give up such territory, the fear goes, how can it justify holding on to any of the West Bank?

This feeling is strong. In the 90s, a widespread campaign was waged opposing the return of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria. I’ve seen the bumper stickers, not infrequently, both in Israel and in the US. They read “Ha’am im Ha’Golan”, the country with the Golan. The campaign was so popular and familiar that it was recycled for Gaza, with stickers that looked identical but had Gush Katif (the major settlement bloc in Gaza) instead of the Golan.

This is not an easy obstacle to overcome, but a strong Israeli campaign, if the government leads it, can pull it off.

Conclusion

The Golan does not get anything like the attention that the West Bank does. For activists, whatever they may think of Israel’s annexation of territory acquired by war, there are no people being held under military occupation without the rule of law and at the whim of the military, dealing with checkpoints, home demolitions and walls in the Golan as they do in the West Bank.

Yet looking today at the situation between Israel and the Palestinians as well as the state of internal Palestinian affairs, it’s hard to see how these conditions will allow a viable and lasting agreement between the two parties. The Syrian side, however, seems like a deal ripe for making, especially since Israel can, in the wake of its attack on Syria last month (which remains shrouded in mystery) claim to have negotiated peace from a position of strength.

Will the dominoes fall in the Gulf, in Lebanon, in Iran as I have described? Who knows? The future and the various reactions and ripples cannot be easily predicted. But it is hard to see the downside of a deal with Syria, from a geostrategic perspective. The issues all come from ideology or from an essential conviction that deals with Arab and Muslim states cannot be trusted under any circumstances. These are recipes for eternal war, and must be rejected by any who wish to see a stable future for Israel, for the Arab states, for Iran and, indeed, for the US.