12:30 pm EDT - 2:00 pm EDT

Past Event

The Syrian-Israeli Relationship as a U.S. Policy Issue

Friday, March 20, 2009

12:30 pm - 2:00 pm EDT

The Brookings Institution
Somers Room

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Itamar Rabinovich started off with an overview of past U.S. policy toward Syria. The priority the United States placed on the Israeli- Syrian relationship, he said, declined dramatically under the administration of George W. Bush, compared to its cardinal position during the period of the Clinton Administration. In addition, during the Bush years, the relative importance of the Israeli component of Washington’s relationship with Damascus declined whereas other components, particularly Iraq and Lebanon, came to the fore. The Bush Administration’s overall policy toward Syria—neither to engage with Syria nor attack it, but to seek soft ways of penalizing it—failed to work.

Rabinovich then argued that it will be up to the Obama Administration and Israel’s new government to decide whether to pick up where former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert left off. Of critical importance, Rabinovich asserted, is the fact that the emphasis of Syrian- Israeli negotiations has shifted from the relatively simple formula of “territories for peace” to a more comprehensive formula that includes Syria’s relationship with Iran, Hizballah, and the radical Palestinian organizations.

According to Rabinovich, the Obama Administration and Israel’s new government will most certainly take a fresh look at Middle Eastern diplomacy. The Israeli government will have to decide whether it wants to proceed with the Syrian negotiations, in what fashion, and to what end. It will have to integrate such decisions into a larger strategy that will address the other core issues of Israel’s national security policies: its relationship with the new U.S. administration, how to address the Palestinian issue, and what to do about Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and a nuclear arsenal. For the Obama Administration, Rabinovich maintained, Syria would be a small, yet a significant piece in a larger national security puzzle.

Rabinovich concluded with a set of U.S. policy options toward Syria and analyzed how an Israeli- Syrian peace process is likely to unfold. He argued that such a process might unfold along one of the following four scenarios: one, a derivative of a potential American-Iranian dialogue, where the priority would be to develop an Iran strategy; two, a by-product of lingering hostility with Iran; three, a policy of using force, a highly unlikely prospect in Rabinovich’s view; four, a policy of maintenance, which will try to find a way of keeping the question of the U.S. relationship with Syria on hold.