The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a policy luncheon discussion on October 18, 2007 with Itamar Rabinovich, Charles and Andrea Bronfman Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center, and Murhaf Jouejati, Professor of Middle East Studies at National Defense University. The discussion focused on current tensions between Israel and Syria, and whether there is a possibility of an Israel-Syria peace agreement.
Itamar Rabinovich began by saying that the present time is critical in the region because Israel-Syria relations are at a point where they can either evolve into renewed negotiation or into serious violence. Rabinovich said the situation is reminiscent of that between Israel and Egypt in the early 1970s, when Anwar al-Sadat first became president of Egypt. An inexperienced new Egyptian president who was undervalued expressed a willingness to enter into a peace talks with Israel at the same time as threatening war. In Syria, Bashar al-Asad is in a similar situation. Like Sadat, Asad speaks of both war and peace.
Rabinovich said that there are dangerous trends that may lead to an Israeli-Syrian conflict. For many years, Syria has relied on deterrence—the threat of using Scud missiles or Hizballah attacks—to prevent an outbreak of war with Israel because it is aware of its military’s limitations. However, during the last few years, the Syrian military has embarked upon a buildup of its capabilities. If this trend continues, Rabinovich argued, in two or three years the Syrian leadership may believe that it possesses the resources to wage war with Israel.
On the diplomatic side, Asad has called for negotiations with Israel, but has articulated specific demands. Asad wants an assurance, before the start of talks, that Israel will withdraw to the boundaries existing on the eve of the Six Day War of 1967. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not have a strong desire to start negotiations with Syria. Olmert has thus far concentrated on the Palestinian track, and lacks the political strength to conduct parallel negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. At the same time, the United States has not supported Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Rabinovich noted that while the United States has recently moderated its position slightly, calling for talks, it has not facilitated them. Given that one of Asad’s main objectives is to build a better relationship with the United States through peace negotiations with Israel, Washington’s lack of energy on the issue has discouraged Asad. There is also little push for Israel-Syria talks in the Arab world. Many Arab countries see Syria as an arm of Iran, and are therefore reluctant to expend energy on assisting Asad. Adding to this equation, Rabinovich said, is the report of an Israeli air strike on a Syrian nuclear facility. Syria’s pursuit of a nuclear program, Rabinovich argued, might imply that Asad is a reckless leader.
Jouejati began by saying that although in past Israel-Syrian peace negotiations the sides were very close to forging an agreement, the current environment is not ripe for an Israel-Syria peace deal. According to Jouejati, peace requires a supportive regional political environment, political will of both sides, and a committed mediator. These conditions currently do not exist. In addition Israeli public opinion is against withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Moreover, Jouejati argued, Israel has little respect for Asad.
On the Syrian side, Jouejati said, there is some anger that the conference in Annapolis will not address the Golan Heights or Israeli-Syrian peace. Therefore, although Syria has been asked to attend, it has been asked to do so as part of a follow-up committee for Israeli-Palestinian issues. Therefore, as things stand, Jouejati said Syria will not attend the conference and Israeli-Syrian peace talks will not be resumed.
Regarding Syria’s relationship with Iran, Jouejati said that it is a relationship of convenience, with Syria becoming ever more dependent on Iran. Therefore, Israel’s air strike against Syria in early September 2007 may drive Syria closer to Iran as Syria might feel rebuffed by the West. One way to counter this, Jouejati argued, is to provide Syria with an alternative route—one that leads to peaceful relationship with Israel and the United States, and Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
During the question and answer session, Saban Center Director Martin S. Indyk pointed to some developments that could bolster prospects for peace. The United States, Indyk said, has changed its position from isolating Syria to inviting Syria to attend the Annapolis peace meeting. At the same time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spoken repeatedly about the need for a comprehensive peace in the region. According to Indyk, this represents the strengthening of those in the Bush Administration who wish to reach out to Syria. Therefore, if Syria does not attend the conference, Indyk argued, it will bolster those in the United States who oppose engaging Syria.
In response, Jouejati said Syrian leadership is looking for more than words from the Bush Administration. The conflict with Israel is about land, and diplomatic subtleties are not what Syria is looking for. Rabinovich said Israel should pre-negotiate, not negotiate, with Syria because the two sides are not ready for negotiations. First, Rabinovich argued, Israel and Syria need to discuss whether Syria is genuinely willing to disengage from Iran. If so, Israel and Syria need to establish credible and confidential negotiating channels. Jouejati noted that Asad has made moves to establish confidential negotiating tracks, and is more supportive of this strategy that was his father, Hafiz.
Rabinovich said that although both sides may understand the benefits of peace, committed and motivated leaders are needed to actually make progress. Committed leaders are needed to find creative solutions because there are difficult issues to overcome. While Asad may understand that a peace agreement is in his interest, so far it has not been his top priority. Both Rabinovich and Jouejati commented on the importance of having a third party take an active role in mediating between Israel and Syria. If the United States does not assume this role, Turkey could be an option.