Israel's experience of negotiating with both Syria and the PLO began some 13 years ago in Madrid. Since then, the key tactical questions have been whether to negotiate with these two actors simultaneously or sequentially and, if sequentially, with whom to begin.
Previous experience is so diverse as to be of little help. In 1948-49 Israel negotiated armistice agreements with all its state neighbors (not the Palestinians) in quick succession. In 1977-79 it negotiated solely with Egypt, which even took upon itself to represent the Palestinian cause in framing the Camp David agreements. In 1994 PM Yitzhak Rabin negotiated secretly with Jordan during the Oslo I discussions with the PLO, but for historic, geographic and demographic reasons the circumstances of the Jordan-PLO-Israel triangle were very different from those involving Syria.
Since Madrid, various Israeli leaders have treated the issue differently. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir negotiated under duress with both Syria and the Palestinians simultaneously, but he apparently sought to ensure that neither track would succeed. Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres and Barak at various times gave priority to the Syrian track. They reasoned that an early agreement with Syria, and by extension with Lebanon, would round out the circle of peace around Israel and deprive the Islamist and secular Palestinian radical terrorist organizations of support, thereby leaving the PLO in a weaker negotiating position. Indeed, to some extent it was also assumed that the very fact of highly publicized parallel negotiations with Syria and the PLO would render both more flexible.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also gave priority to the Syrian track. But he kept his talks with the Syrians a secret, while his negotiations with the Palestinians were in any case confined to limited goals, i.e., withdrawal from Hebron and the Wye River agreement. Some Israeli leaders, like Rabin, opined that the Israeli public was in any case not capable of "absorbing" two simultaneous agreements with Arab neighbors that involved territorial concessions. Virtually all appeared to believe that a deal with Syria would have broader geo-strategic benefits for Israel, would be far less complicated to negotiate and, in terms of territorial concessions and immediate benefits, would be easier for the Israeli public to accept.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is basically not interested in negotiating with either Syria or the PLO if this means making significant Israeli territorial concessions or offering confidence building measures. Thanks to Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, there is no peace process with the PLO. The PLO/Palestinian Authority is so weak, and anarchy so rampant, that Israel may not have a viable Palestinian partner anyway. Hence talks with Syria can hardly be conceptualized as a tactic for exercising political leverage vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
The key to understanding this situation and its costs and benefits for Israel lies in post-9/11 American policies in the region. Thanks to the US war on terrorism and occupation of Iraq, Israel's regional strategic situation has never been so good: there is no threat of conventional war, and a powerful American ally is targeting the weapons of mass destruction and Islamic terrorism that threaten Israel. Radical countries like Syria, Libya and Iran are in various ways beginning to seek to accommodate Washington. There is little if any American pressure on Israel to make concessions or even to negotiate with Syria or the PLO. Indeed, the current situation, in which Syrian President Bashar Asad is offering to renew negotiations without pre-conditions and Washington does not take the initiative to mediate between Damascus and Jerusalem, is without precedent.
If only the neo-conservatives in Washington knew where to draw the line in Israel's case! By allowing and even encouraging Sharon not to talk to Asad, they are sending a message to the Arab world that neither they nor Israel are interested in peace. Sending ambiguous and half-hearted protests to Jerusalem regarding the fence, the outposts, and Sharon's plan to reduce settlements in Gaza and thicken them in the West Bank, the Americans are enabling and encouraging him to create an apartheid reality that is the very antithesis of the democratization that they preach for the region.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Sharon accepted Asad's initiative and agreed to negotiate. The results could hardly be negative. If indeed Syria is weak, confused and in need of improved relations with the US, then Israel might get a better territorial deal than anything offered to it in the past. If not, it at least displayed a readiness to talk peace with a neighbor. As for the Palestinian sphere, Israel could demand that the first item on its agenda with Syria be Hizballah's activities, not only in southern Lebanon but in fomenting terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza. To the extent that an Israeli-Syrian agreement looks possible, this might encourage Yasser Arafat to take security steps that would stabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations and set the stage for renewed negotiations.
Even if Israeli-Syrian talks are once again doomed to failure, we have little to lose by trying.
- Published 16/2/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Renewing the Syrian-Israeli negotiations track can be a positive development for the Middle East peace process in general; including for the Palestinian-Israeli track. From experience in the different stages of the peace process, it has been clearly shown that moving ahead on one track and leaving the other behind always creates instability and motives for obstruction. While there are indeed different components of the conflict, the various tracks are closely inter-related. One must recognize the two common denominators in all tracks: Israel is a party to both and the Palestinian problem is the root of the entire conflict.
The standard questions raised about the possible effects on the Palestinian track which consistently follow any news of “renewing” efforts on the Syrian track, are irrelevant this time around. The reason is very simple and straight forward: there are no Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations to be affected, negatively or otherwise. Moreover, Moreover, there is no hope of reanimating one as long as Israeli Prime Minister Minister Ariel Sharon and his extremist coalition are still in power.
Having said that, it can be added that the Syrian track lacks both the dynamics and the urgency for moving forward. With the situation static, the different parties are able to live with the status quo with little cost to be paid by them if the conflict is not solved. Syria is not under occupation and Israel is not under fire. The only aspect that “spices things up” is Lebanon but even Hezbollah is gradually concentrating on exclusively Lebanese priorities.
Another important reason why it is difficult to be optimistic is that all this appears to be happening for purely tactical reasons. It is just maneuver. The Israeli government is trying to compensate for its failure in making any progress on the Palestinian track. At an ever-quickening pace, the current Israeli administration is solidifying its reputation as an anti-peace ruling coalition.
The Syrians, on the other hand, are convinced that making peace with this Israeli government is a hopeless case. They are however using the appearance of being a partner in the peace process as one of the main mechanisms to diffuse current American pressure even though this pressure emanates from different areas.
Since international legality is the common aspect in all components of the Middle East conflict, a multiple negotiation process that is about making peace by adhering to international legitimacy and implementing relevant UN Security Council resolutions is the only way for a comprehensive and lasting peace. The recipe for this is the Saudi--and later Arab--initiative which offers Israel lasting, collective, and comprehensive peace, in return for a complete withdrawal. For this to happen there needs to be a change in the composition of the Israeli government and a strong role for representatives of the international community (such as the Quartet). Right now, both of these are absent.
- Published 16/2/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
bitterlemons: When you led negotiations with Syria under the Netanyahu government, what were your calculations regarding the effect on the Palestinian track?
Arad: The driving consideration was that by activating the Syrian track, we were also improving Israel's maneuvering space and capabilities vis-a-vis the Palestinians. If you recall, the interim negotiations with the Palestinians that culminated in the Wye River Conference took place in 1998. It is no coincidence therefore that in the summer of 1998, during the weeks and months preceding Wye, Syrian-Israeli indirect negotiations reached their peak. The Syrians were always surprised at the fact that each successive [Israeli] prime minister appeared to give priority or preference to movement on the Syrian track, a pattern that was true for Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak. But the Syrians repeatedly found themselves stalled at the end of the process, with the Israelis reengaging the Palestinians.
In the summer of 1998 the Syrians felt rightly that Israel was on the verge of concluding what was to become in October the Wye agreement. Because they had to recapture primacy they understood they had to make a deal attractive to Israel. President Hafez Asad acted very much as "an old man in a hurry", for two reasons. He realized he was nearing the end of his role. But he also realized that an agreement with the Palestinians was in the making. It was very much Asad who showed greater flexibility and a willingness to conclude the deal quickly.
bitterlemons: How did this affect the Palestinians?
Arad: As near as I can tell they were not aware of the negotiations [with Syria] at the time. There were fragments of gossip, but they were not aware of the intensive shuttle diplomacy that took place in August and September. But one cannot rule out the possibility that the Americans, who knew about the talks with Syria, tipped them off to nudge them towards an agreement.
bitterlemons: What has changed since then?
Arad: In the previous decade two considerations that affected Israeli thinking—beyond the issues on their own merits—were the Lebanese situation, which at the time was festering and costing us, and the negotiations with the Palestinians. Both had the effect of increasing Israeli interest in moving first on the Syrian front, so as to increase our leverage vis-a-vis the Palestinians as well as to resolve the Lebanese imbroglio by negotiating with Syria.
These calculations are no longer operative, due to three developments. First, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000, and with all the ensuing consequences regarding the Palestinians, this had the effect of lessening Israel's interest in dealing with Syria. Secondly, the demise of Hafez Asad and the emergence of his son Bashar have created a discontinuity and a high degree of uncertainty as to whom we are dealing with. And thirdly, the post-9/11 post-Iraq Middle East is a different region in ways that project upon the Syrian issue in Israeli or for that matter American eyes. The net effect of these developments is that there is not as high an Israeli interest in moving on the Syrian track now as there was under previous circumstances.
bitterlemons: Would you yourself recommend negotiating now with Syria?
Arad: Israel should certainly consider pursuing the Syrian option, taking into account all that has changed and the new opportunities that present themselves. This time Israel's approach would be less motivated by the effect on the Palestinian track as connected to regional factors. These include American objectives and Syrian weakness, but also the shifting conditions in the Middle East as manifested by many of the consequences of the American action in Iraq, e.g., what has happened in Libya and Syria.
I personally believe that it would not consume too much of our energies to engage the Syrians with a view to exploring these new vistas. There is no rush, no urgency, Bashar Asad could very well be a young man in no hurry and neither are we, but the changed circumstances could suggest the possibility of a new deal with the Syrians that would better suit the present and changing Middle East. Just as Syria has shown greater flexibility toward Turkey, and considering that it may have new objectives in its relations with Europe and the US, I would not be surprised if, when it comes to the contours of a territorial deal between us and Syria, it showed greater flexibility than in the past.
bitterlemons: So you believe the Syrians are serious?
Arad: I share the assessment of Israeli intelligence that Bashar Asad's desire to engage Israel is genuine. This clearly indicates that Bashar may be feeling pressure as well as reconsidering his circumstances and showing an interest in changing his regional and international conditions. This could be a signal that there may be greater flexibility in Syria's present position which, if properly leveraged by the US and Israel through the use of incentives and disincentives, could result in a future deal some time down the road. The pacing of the process could be decided taking into account the Palestinian track so as to make sure that each is being pursued to the limit the traffic can bear without one interfering with the other or adversely affecting it.
bitterlemons: Will Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon negotiate with Syria in the near future?
Arad: Evidently Sharon has shown little interest in pursuing that option. Of course this could always be a tactical display of reluctance, but it could also be genuine since his hands are full with his present initiative on the Palestinian issue.
- Published 16/2/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Uzi Arad is director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, and adviser to the Foreign Relations and Armed Forces Committee of the Knesset. He is former foreign policy adviser to PM Netanyahu and served in various senior positions in the Mossad.
bitterlemons: If Israel resumes negotiations with Syria, what consequences do you think this will have on the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating track?
Amin: I believe that any progress on the Syrian track with Israel will have a positive impact on the Palestinian track. I would see what the Syrian government is requesting from the Israeli government. Any developments satisfying these demands will strengthen the Palestinian position in the negotiations with Israel.
bitterlemons: Do you think that current and past Israeli governments have played off the Syrians vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the past?
Amin: Absolutely. Israel has tried from day one to negotiate on separate tracks. They have always attempted to divide the Palestinian track from the Syrian track from the Lebanese track and so forth in order to avoid a comprehensive solution to the conflict. So it was absolutely in the interests of Israel to have negotiations progressing on separate tracks. The one who paid the biggest price was the weakest party in the process being, the Palestinians first and foremost. However, Israel has always been the strongest party and has therefore dictated the peace negotiations from the very beginning.
bitterlemons: What do you believe are the reasons that Syrian President Bashar Asad has offered to resume negotiations with Israel?
Amin: It's clear that after the war in Iraq and the immense changes that have taken place over the past nine or ten months, Syria feels it is isolated. President Bashar Asad has certainly realized that the space in which he is allowed to maneuver has become noticeably smaller. In that sense, he needs to do something more to respond to the American demands or the Israeli demands.
bitterlemons: Do you think that there has been a difference between the way the Israeli Labor Party has negotiated with Syria and the strategies employed by the Likud, both in the past and in the present?
Amin: I always felt that Labor has the capacity to see the big picture much more than the Likud does. The Likud Party seems to concentrate much more on the tactics of now. Looking at the current Israeli government, they are focused on the current situation. They are following quite a short sighted policy. They are looking at how they can achieve the maximum gains for the state of Israel today and I don’t believe that the gains they can realistically achieve today are the ones that will serve them best in the long run. In that sense, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s Syria policy is surely not in the interests of the state of Israel as such.
bitterlemons: What do you think the Palestinian leadership should do if the Syria-Israel track is suddenly reopened?
Amin: I would do my absolute best to coordinate with the Syrian government. It goes back to what I was saying earlier: the moment there are separate negotiation tracks, is the moment that all Arab parties are weakened. By agreeing to sign any hypothetical agreement alone, they will become active participants in Israel’s divide and conquer strategy. When you look at the various tracks of negotiations that took place the past ten years or so, I am totally convinced that Israel approached these talks without the intention of completing a comprehensive peace. The Israelis have been focused on trying to obtain the “biggest” gains they could in the short term. Again, this is a short-sighted way of conducting peace negotiations because any true peace must be comprehensive. This can only be done when all parties sign off on the agreements. The piecemeal manner of conducting these talks has only led to disaster. There has to be a win-win situation. If one party succeeds in forcing its entire agenda at the cost of all the other parties, it will backfire in the end because one side will be humiliated.
bitterlemons: Do you believe that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 has changed the equation with Syria today?
Amin: It surely did. Before 2000, Israel always tried to combine a withdrawal from Lebanon with Syrian concessions on the Golan Heights. The moment Israel withdrew from Lebanon it separated the issue of south Lebanon from that of the Golan, thereby strengthening Syria's position by no longer holding south Lebanon hostage until Syria retreated from its Golan position. Until today, Syria has insisted that it will not accept anything less than a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. To be honest, I am not sure how much Bashar Asad still holds this to be true. Given the situation in Iraq, with an American occupying force to its east, I don’t know if the Syrian government is not maybe more willing to make concessions on the Golan.
- Published 16/2/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Amin Amin is Senior Project Manager at Delft University in Holland. A Palestinian political analyst from Ramallah, he divides his time between Europe and the Middle East.
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