Lebanon, Syria and Israel
Israel won't lose by talking to Syria
By Terje Roed-Larsen
Wednesday, January 05, 2005: Daily Star
Terje Roed-Larsen, one of the architects of the Oslo channel who served as the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process from 1993-97, and again since 1999, is making a last effort to convice Israelis and Americans to take Syrian peace offers seriously. He is leaving his post at the end of the year to become president of the International Peace Academy in New York. This commentary first appeared in bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter.
In retrospect, historians will undoubtedly view the autumn of 2004 as a crucial juncture in the annals of Middle East peace diplomacy. The question is, Will they see this moment as a new beginning in the region, or as a missed opportunity?
A window of potential opportunity has opened up on the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process. Syrian President Bashar Assad has stretched out a hand toward Israel. This outstretched hand should be grabbed, not refused.
During my recent visit to Damascus, Assad told me very clearly: Syria is willing to go back to peace negotiations with Israel without any preconditions and within the framework of the relevant Security Council resolutions and the fundamental principle of land for peace.
I am well aware that many in Israel are very skeptical as regards the sincerity of Assad's overtures. Many kinds of pressure characterize the region at the moment, and some observers have linked Assad's initiative with those changing dynamics. This may not be wrong - but I believe that the motivating factors behind Assad's outstretched hand are far less important than the fact that Syria is indeed reaching out to Israel. At the very least, I think, the offer should be explored. What does Israel stand to lose? If Assad were bluffing, Israel would not lose anything by exploring the sincerity of his initiative, and by calling the bluff.
My meeting with Assad took place in a very warm, creative and constructive atmosphere, including a lengthy private discussion. I came away convinced that the president is genuinely interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the international community. All the indications are that Syria has recognized the signs of the times and is trying to make some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a broader redefinition of its role in the region.
My impression was furthered in the other meetings I had in Damascus, where I also talked with Foreign
Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah. Two days after my departure, Dakhlallah reiterated the president's offer publicly in a press conference in Damascus: Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel, without any preconditions.
Since my initial public remarks about Assad's offer, a debate has raged in Israel and beyond regarding the potential and interest behind the Syrian peace overtures and the prospects for progress. I have had frank discussions with a number of key Israeli leaders and officials. Both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Jordanian ruler, King Abdullah II, have offered to mediate between the two parties. Israel has so far refrained from taking up either offer, or from exploring the Syrian initiative. And I think this needs to be done before what may be a fleeting moment passes.
There are those in Israel who think that in the present situation, with promising prospects for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track and with imminent implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan in Gaza and the northern West Bank, Israel should not engage in a parallel second track of the peace process. Of course, there are also some who would like to keep the entire Golan Heights, period. However, without the willingness to embrace the principle of land for peace, there are naturally few prospects for lasting peace in the region.
As regards the engagement on two parallel tracks of the peace process, I do not see a problem here. On the contrary, I would argue that engagement on two parallel tracks could actually consolidate the momentum toward peace. Progress on one track would fuel the overall momentum, and thus propel the other track forward, too. The recent talks between the Palestinian leadership and the Syrian government, and the agreement reached to coordinate their respective negotiating positions, only serve to illustrate and underline this point.
I am not arguing that the realization of a comprehensive peace deal in the region is imminent, or will be easy. But clearly, movement on the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process will also prompt movement on the Israeli-Lebanese track. Perhaps it cannot be done at once - but momentum toward the realization of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East has already been created, also aided by the promising prospects on the Israeli-Palestinian track. And this momentum should be explored and if possible, exploited.
Syria's hand is outstretched toward Israel now. It should be grabbed. The opportunity is now, and may soon pass. And history will judge these days in retrospect for being full of missed opportunities, or for being the first days of a new beginning in the Middle East.
I think they can, and should, be remembered as the latter.
The Israeli press has been peppered with articles and opinion pieces that pour cold water either on Asad's sincerity or the notion that Israel could actually benefit from giving away the Golan. It is this last reason which seems to hold sway over Israeli opinion. Why give away such a wonderful hunk of territory, that actually causes Israel no hassles, for nothing - or as one Israeli journalist put it: "for an Israeli flag flying over one building in Damascus?" Syria is too week to get Israel's attention.
This leads many Israeli's to argue Asad must do a Saddat and fly into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and engage in a major charm offensive to melt the hardened hearts of his opponents. Of course no one suggests that he do a 1973 and try to hurt Israel before undertaking the charm campaign. But of course, Syria does not have the power for such a show of force and demand of credibility. This is Syria's real problem. It is not clear that charm will melt Sharon's heart, and Syria has no force. Without major American assistance and pressure, Syria will not retrieve the Golan.
Syria is quite eager to open up peace negotiations under almost any terms before Lebanon slips from its control. Once that happens, Syria will be that much less persuasive in the region and immeasurably less able to "punch above its weight."
I am in Beirut writing this and have met with many of my "neocon" Lebanese friends, who are ecstatic about Junblat's rebirth as a Syrian fighter. The Christians are in a state of extreme excitement about the number of Muslims coming over to the "Lebanese" national view.
Of course all eyes are on Hariri now, to see how his ever sentence may signal the slightest shift toward the opposition. They are convinced the Syrians are on the run and it is only a matter of time before the Shiites fall into line. Of course no one has a very clear concept of how this will actually take place.
Many were overjoyed by King Abdullah's "Evil Shiite Crescent" speech which sent Nasrallah into paroxysms of apology, insisting that the Shiites are only good Arabs trying to do their duty with loyalty and Arouba. They have no imperial plans, etc. Christians saw in these apologetic expressions the Shiites reflexive minority complex, something Christians can relate to. It gave them hope that Shiites will wake up to the realization that playing the consociational democracy game in the Lebanese fashion is ultimately in their best interest. Make deals with Christians because the Sunni will always see you as dangerous heretics, like Abdullah does.