Being in California means that interesting events in the Mideast often happen while I’m asleep. For example, this is what I awoke to today:
Hours after the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced that Israel and Syria had begun indirect peace talks, the PMO denied Wednesday a statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to the effect that Damascus received commitments for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights up to the June 4, 1967 border during Turkish-brokered indirect talks.
“As (Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert has said in the past, Syria knows what Israel demands of it and Israel knows what Syria expects it to do,” officials in the PMO said.
“We received commitments for a withdrawal from the Golan to the June 4, 1967 line,” Moallem had told AFP during a visit to Bahrain. “This is not new. It started since Rabin’s pledge [for a pullout] in 1993, and all subsequent Israeli prime ministers abided by it.” — Jerusalem Post
It’s understood that “what Israel demands” is that Syria stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, and in some sense move away from Iran.
In any event, Moaellem may be correct. Dennis Ross (The Missing Peace: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) writes,
To break the stalemate [US negotiator Edward Djerejian] tried to see if Syria would engage on the basis of hypotheticals — e.g., assume you get full withdrawal, how would you respond on peace and security — but this effort too was unavailing. The Syrian negotiators would not budge. [p.100]
But by July of 1992, Rabin felt that the ‘Oslo track’ with the Palestinians was not going to bear fruit, so he turned to the ‘Syrian track’. He approached the American negotiators with the proposal that Israel would ‘withdraw fully’ from the Golan if Syria would agree to a full normalization of relations, satisfactory security arrangements, and a guarantee of Israel’s water rights. [Ross, p.111]
Rabin insisted that this be kept confidential, and the Americans placed it in their ‘pocket’ until such time as an agreement could be made on all the issues at once. That way, neither Israel nor Syria would be seen as making an offer without getting something in return. This became known as the “Syrian pocket”.
Negotiations with Hafez al-Assad continued in an on-and-off manner, mostly over the precise interpretation of ‘full withdrawal’. But the ‘pocket’ did not go away. When negotiations finally broke off in 2000 for various reasons including the ill health of Assad, the differences over full withdrawal measured in the hundreds of meters.
So Moallem believes that the pocket is still operative.
But now is a particularly unlikely time for a Syria-Israel peace treaty, and one would be very dangerous to Israel at this point.
1) The loss of the Golan would put Israel at a strategic disadvantage at a time of great military tension. In addition to its importance in a ground war, many Israeli towns, kibbutzim and moshavim would be placed in range of small arms fire, not to mention mortars and very short-range rockets against which — as we’ve seen in Gaza — there is almost no defense.
Syria has recently undergone a huge military buildup, funded by Iran, especially of its strategic rocket forces. In addition, Hezbollah has just formalized its hold over the Lebanese government, gaining veto power and other concessions. There is now nothing to prevent Hezbollah from deploying wherever it wants and making use of the resources of the Lebanese army in any way that it wishes.
Both Hezbollah and Syria believe that the 2006 war shows that Israel can be beaten — or at least deterred — and both have recently made threatening gestures, including the movement of Syrian troops to border areas. It seems as though Bashar al-Assad sees the present talks with Israel more as the presentation of an ultimatum than as a peace process.
2) There are 33 Israeli settlements on the Golan with about 18,000 residents. This is more than twice the population of the Gaza settlements that were abandoned. Many of the former Gaza residents still have not been resettled, and the costs of the withdrawal — both monetary and social — have been enormous. Any government that tried to withdraw from the Golan would face huge opposition from the populace and even the army.
3) PM Olmert is in serious legal trouble, facing multiple charges of bribery and corruption, and new allegations against him arise every day. He definitely does not have the support of a majority of Israelis and he has zero moral authority, certainly not to give up territory.
4) Israel’s conditions are unenforceable. Has Syria obeyed UN resolution 1701, which forbids weapons shipments to Hezbollah? Why should she be more likely to keep an agreement with Israel, especially since Hezbollah and Lebanon are now more indistinguishable than ever? And is it realistic to expect Syria to cut ties with Iran?
This is not an agreement that Israel can afford to make; indeed it’s not one that the government is even capable of making. It will not happen.
So it’s particularly unfortunate that PM Olmert, for whatever reason, allowed the process to get this far and thereby created an opportunity for Israel’s detractors to cast her as the obstacle to peace in the region when the talks fall apart.