How Israel can make peace with Syria

Conditions are ripening for a deal — not least the emergence of a promising new mediator

Recently, a very senior Israeli minister provided a private audience with a particularly neat metaphor for possible talks between Jerusalem and Damascus. “Negotiating with Syria,” the minister said, “is not like haggling in the marketplace. It’s like going into a boutique. You know exactly what you want, and just how much you’re going to have to pay for it.”

The basic parameters of any peace deal between Israel and Syria have been clear for years. Israel wants diplomatic relations and an end to Syria acting as a sponsor of terror and a key ally of Iran. Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights as well as international recognition and financial aid from the West to prop up its economy.

The strategically important Golan, with little biblical significance for Israel and whose settlers are less than hard-line, would become a demilitarised zone to prevent the attacks on the Galil that were rampant before it was captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syria has indicated its agreement to Israel keeping early-warning stations on the Golan and part of it remaining under Israeli control on a long-term lease or as a nature reserve.

At least five Israeli prime ministers have been prepared to discuss the details of these shopping lists, without clinching a final deal. The last attempt broke down in 2000. This time, the circumstances might be different.

For one thing, Syria is languishing in both an economic crisis and a diplomatic Slough of Despond. President Bashar el-Assad has been effectively marginalised by US President Bush, not least because Bush still suspects the Baathist demagogue of hiding those elusive Iraqi WMDs. European allies such as France have deserted him in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And the Arab world is turning against him, as evidenced by the recent Arab League summit in Damascus, snubbed entirely by Lebanon and attended by embarrassingly low-level envoys from regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

So Syria has few friends, with the notable exception of Iran. And the Syrians themselves are not terribly happy envisaging the total Iranian domination of their country.

Then there was the affair of the Syrian reactor in Tibnah bombed by Israel last September, details of which were revealed to the US Congress last week. According to the CIA, the Israelis destroyed a nuclear installation, built with North Korean help and within weeks of completion.

In practice, both the incident and its repercussions may be useful for both sides when it comes to peacemaking. Israel has been seen to reassert its deterrence in the region. And Assad, both humiliated and frightened by the ease with which Israel detected, documented and destroyed the reactor, now needs to pull something drastic out of the bag. If not, powerful factions within his own ruling Allawite minority might feel they need someone tougher to keep the regime afloat.

The vital ingredient now needed is a trusted broker to narrow the distance between the two sides. The natural candidate, the US, sees the Assad regime as a fundamental link in the axis of evil. Freelancers have been trying their luck, most recently Jimmy Carter, one in a long line of opportunists who have fancied a quick trot around the Middle East for a spot of world peace. Lacking any kind of leverage, however, snowy-haired former presidents are of no use when it comes to serious peacemaking.

But enter a new actor to the stage of Middle East peacemaking, one with both an interest and influence, enjoying good relations with both Jerusalem and Damascus: Turkey. Ankara wants to show itself as a major player both to the West and to the Arab world, where brokering an historic peace deal could help justify its close ties with Israel. In the face of hostility to Turkey joining the EU, it is also looking for an alternative sphere of influence.

Turkey has considerable leverage over the Assad regime since it effectively controls the Euphrates river, one of Syria’s main water sources, with the enormous Attaturk dam. It can open up a whole new corridor of development for Syria — with which its trade is already soaring — not to mention Israel.

Of course, both Syria and Israel have huge hurdles ahead. For Ehud Olmert, public opinion will need reassuring with a dramatic gesture or two — such as the Syrians expelling Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, currently resident in Damascus. For Assad, as the head of a dictatorial regime where public support figures rather less in decision-making, it is getting fellow Baathists and strongmen behind him and finding out where and how he will be compensated for the loss of Iranian support.

US support will be necessary, ultimately, to usher Syria into the club of moderates alongside Jordan and Egypt, but initial bilateral achievements might convince the next administration to get on board.

It is true that the Syrian border has been Israel’s quietest for more than three decades. But Israel is, once again, in a situation where there is little hope of meaningful progress on the Palestinian track in the near future. The dividends of peace with Syria could be so dramatic, and the effect on the wider Middle East so spectacular, that the opportunity to risk the status quo for a better future should not be easily passed up.

Former US President Bill Clinton once said that an Israeli-Syrian deal could be hammered out in little more than half an hour. The US is staying out of things, for now. Turkey is the broker, and perhaps the only potential peacemaker at this point willing to bring the two sides together — or at the very least, take them shopping.

Daniella Peled is the JC’s foreign editor

    Last updated: 3:38pm, May 13 2008