b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    April 14, 2008 Edition 15                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Ramifications of Syrian-Israeli tensions
. Complex regional rivalry muddying the waters        by Ghassan Khatib
Palestine is being affected by the ongoing regional rivalry between Iran and the United States that started with the Iraq invasion.
  . Through an Iranian prism        by Yossi Alpher
A successful Israeli-Syrian negotiating process could improve the prospects for an Israel-PLO agreement.
. Moving, but going nowhere        an interview with Ziyad Abu Zayyad
The Syrians will not sell out the Palestinian cause.
  . Syria's role        by Moshe Ma'oz
Ostensibly, Israel can continue its conflict with Syria for a long time provided it can settle its dispute with the Palestinians soon.

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Complex regional rivalry muddying the waters
by Ghassan Khatib

The tension between Israel, Syria and Lebanon has carried indirect negative consequences for Palestinians. Even though it is correct to say that at the moment there is no serious or promising peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis to be disrupted, the tension, on the one hand, and Syria and its regional alliances on the other, can play an important role in influencing the domestic Palestinian situation as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Recent years have witnessed a growing interrelationship between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other regional conflicts. This in turn has increased the influence and role of regional actors both on the conflict and on domestic Palestinian affairs. This influence has become especially pronounced with the gradual weakening of the Palestinian leadership that resulted from the deterioration and ultimate failure of the peace process upon which this leadership had gambled so much.

It has become evident that Palestine, like Lebanon and Iraq, is being affected by the ongoing regional rivalry between Iran and the United States that started with the Iraq invasion and US attempts to weaken Iran and interfere in its domestic affairs including with its nuclear program. With an American military presence on its borders in Iraq, the Arab Gulf and Afghanistan, Iran has been motivated to play its cards against this growing American hegemony. These developments coincided with the collapse of the peace process, the moderate and secular leadership associated with it and the rise of Hamas and its victory in Palestinian elections and subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Throughout this period, Syria was the connection between Iran and the Islamist forces in Palestine. Syria was happy to play this role in order to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Israel, which still occupies Syrian territory, as well as in reaction to US-supported attempts to weaken its influence in Lebanon. Syria justifies hanging on to its tenuous role in Lebanon by citing the possible growing influence of Israel there, since part of the anti-Syrian Lebanese forces happen to be aligned with the US and thus by extension, Israel.

This complex regional situation has a hand in the domestic Palestinian deterioration. On the public sentiment level, regardless of ideological bent, Palestinians are solidly in support of the anti-American camp. Against this background the growing tension between the Syrian government and its allies in Lebanon and Israel is part of a larger regional picture that can only burden the fragile Palestinian-Israeli negotiations process as well as further deepen domestic Palestinian tensions. Those aligned with Syria in the Palestinian political context, in addition to the vast majority of the Palestinian public, will only further doubt any Israeli willingness to allow the process to move forward.

Since this growing tension and its negative consequences on Palestinian-Israeli relations are part of the general regional polarization, the best hope of reversing this situation comes from a new American approach to the region when the next administration takes office. But any cosmetic or partial measures will not halt the deterioration. A new regional US approach that includes reversing the growing American presence and hegemony coupled with adherence to international law and an avoidance of double standards is called for. This may allow a regional environment to develop that is more conducive to improving Syrian-Israel as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations.- Published 14/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.

Through an Iranian prism
by Yossi Alpher

Currently, relations between Israel and Syria are very tense. Any deterioration in the situation--or for that matter, any improvement--could have far-reaching ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian relations. But from Israel's standpoint, there is more to the picture than just Syria and Palestine.

The immediate backdrop to the current Israeli-Syrian tension is the assassination in early March in Damascus of Hizballah security chief Imad Mughniyeh, for which Hizballah blames Israel. Now that the 40-day Shi'ite mourning period has passed, Israel anticipates a Hizballah revenge attack that could escalate into new fighting in Lebanon and Israel. Jerusalem believes that Damascus can restrain Hizballah if it has the necessary incentive. Hence it has redoubled Israel's security preparations in the north, carried out a massive combined military-political-civil defense exercise and threatened Syria that it could suffer as a consequence of any renewed fighting.

There are numerous intriguing nuances and twists-and-turns to the drama unfolding on Israel's northern front. For one, Hizballah has an additional incentive to strike against Israel: diverting attention from its prolonged failure to compel the Lebanese political establishment to grant it more power within the country's faltering political system. On the other hand, Syrian opposition sources claim that the Mughniyeh assassination has brought about an internal shake-up in President Bashar Assad's entourage, and that Syria's own investigation of the assassination points to Saudi Arabia, not Israel, as the perpetrator.

Then too, the United States Congress is likely soon to provide new and embarrassing (for Syria) details regarding the destruction of a North Korean-supplied nuclear installation in northeast Syria last September, for which Syria blames Israel. While such revelations could add to the tension, the Deir al-Zour operation also undoubtedly serves as a constant reminder to Syria regarding the extent of Israel's capacity to inflict damage if hostilities break out. Finally, the Israeli-Syrian border has been tense since the summer 2006 Second Lebanon War. Syria supplied Hizballah with arms before, throughout and after the war. Assad, who appears to have been captivated by Hizballah's use of massive barrages of tactical rockets during the war, has threatened to emulate that strategy.

This brings us to the linkage between Israeli-Syrian tensions and the Palestinian issue. Renewed fighting on Israel's northern front would almost certainly freeze Israel's peace negotiations with the PLO leadership based in Ramallah. And it could easily provoke a new escalation of fighting on Israel's Gaza front. On the other hand, the Mughniyeh assassination undoubtedly generated recognition by Khaled Mishaal and additional Hamas leaders in Damascus that, if Israel (or Saudi Arabia, or anyone else) can reach Mughniyeh it can also reach and eliminate them. This, coupled with Israeli and Egyptian pressure on Hamas in Gaza, could help explain Mishaal's recent offer--made to a Ramallah-based newspaper, al-Ayyam--of a ceasefire with Israel.

Then there is the "flip side" of Israeli-Syrian hostility: the constantly-discussed prospect of renewed peace negotiations between the two countries. At the broad regional level, Jerusalem seeks direct negotiations with Damascus with the objective of weakening Syrian-Iranian ties and Syrian support for Hizballah and Hamas. In this regard, a successful Israeli-Syrian negotiating process could, by weakening Hamas, improve the prospects for an agreement between Israel and the West Bank-based PLO. On the other hand, there is an understandable concern in the PLO camp that, for Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, talks with Syria could represent an elegant way to exit unproductive talks with President Mahmoud Abbas.

Even without Israeli-Syrian talks, Israel hopes that Syria's acute regional isolation, as illustrated by the absence of major Arab leaders from the recent Arab summit in Damascus, coupled with its continued drift alongside Hizballah and Hamas into the Iranian orbit, will persuade Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to redouble their support for the PLO and their pressure on Hamas, and to adopt a more flexible attitude toward both the spirit and the substance of the Arab peace initiative. Of course, Israel also has to take into account that one objective of the Saudi and Egyptian response to the Iran-Syria-Hamas alliance is to try to distance Hamas from that alliance by embracing it and pressuring both Hamas and the PLO to renew their unity government. Success in this endeavor would present both Jerusalem and the international Quartet with a demand to soften their conditions for talking to such a government.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, in order to understand Israel's response to both the current tension with Syria and Hizballah and the link between that tension and the status of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it is vital to recognize the major evolution that has taken place in recent years in Israel's grand strategic thinking regarding the Iranian threat. Iran--not Syria and not Palestine--is today the prism through which Israeli security planners look at the region, its permutations and the threats it presents. Any effort at either war or peace with Syria is directed against Iran. The non-state Islamist actors Hizballah and Hamas represent Iranian footholds on Israel's borders and on the shores of the Mediterranean. Israeli-Egyptian cooperation regarding Hamas relates to Iran.

Of course, Israel still has a host of strategic threats and issues to deal with. But the prism is Iran.- Published 14/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Moving, but going nowhere

an interview with Ziyad Abu Zayyad

bitterlemons: Damascus came out in the last couple of weeks saying that recent Israeli military exercises were targeted at Syria. Is there a serious chance of conflagration between Syria and Israel at the moment?

Abu Zayyad: I think both sides understand the serious consequences of confrontation, one of which is that other parties will be involved. I exclude a bilateral confrontation between Israel and Syria unless it starts somewhere else, like Lebanon or even Iran.

bitterlemons: But if both sides are aware of the consequences, why the ratcheting up of the rhetoric?

Abu Zayyad: We should not forget that at the same time as this military exercise in Israel there was a kind of exchange of statements from both sides on the necessity of solving the mutual problem and being involved in a political settlement to the conflict.

bitterlemons: If the focus is on the Syrian-Israeli front, is the Palestinian track then shunted aside?

Abu Zayyad: There was a traditional argument that if Israel focuses on the Syrian track it will be at the cost of the Palestinian-Israeli process. I don't buy this argument. I think that at the end of the day what the region needs is a comprehensive settlement with all the parties involved, specifically Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinians and Israel. So I am not afraid of any direct political negotiations between Israel and the Syrians, because in the end I think it will help the Palestinian problem. I don't think the Syrians will accept to have on record that they made peace with Israel and neglected the Palestinian cause.

bitterlemons: What about the other way around? Would Syria prevent the Palestinian-Israeli track from going too far if it is left behind?

Abu Zayyad: There was an impression that the Syrians at some stage wanted the Palestinians to be one of the cards they could play at the table. I don't know to what extent this is true, but I do know that the Syrians will not sell out the Palestinian cause.

bitterlemons: If there is a conflagration, whether just between Syria and Israel or also involving other players like Lebanon and Iran, will that end the Palestinian-Israeli peace process?

Abu Zayyad: If there is total conflict in the region new realities will spring up and a new map will be drawn. If you think about such a scenario, a total war between Israel, Syria, Iran, Lebanon and even some Palestinian groups, I fear it will be a disaster for everyone. I'm afraid it will not be limited to conventional weapons or be under the control of wise and intelligent leaders. Such a confrontation could be in the hands of fanatics and adventurers. It's a scenario I don't like to think about.

bitterlemons: Is there a sense that the current process, if not proceeding well, might strengthen the kind of extremist thinking you fear?

Abu Zayyad: I actually don't think there is a peace process. A process means something is going on. But I see no practical or substantial evidence of this. Since the Annapolis conference there have been meetings between Palestinians and Israelis but as far as I can see, nothing substantial has been achieved. So maybe it's an exaggeration to call it a peace process.

At the moment, we have an American administration that is approaching its last days in power. It seems to have no influence and is unable to force anyone to do anything. Perhaps the Republicans are in need of the Jewish vote and won't go far in pushing the parties.

Everyone seems to want something to show their own publics, something to point to to say that they are doing something. There is a saying in Arabic, "al-haraka baraka", that the most important thing is just to keep moving even if you're not going anywhere.- Published 14/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ziyad Abu Zayyad is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal and a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Syria's role

by Moshe Ma'oz

It is in Israel's vested interest to seek a political settlement with Syria--and not only in order to neutralize the Iranian-backed Hizballah menace. An Israeli-Syrian peace, which is relatively easy to achieve, can help settle the more intricate and critical Israeli-Palestinian dispute insofar as Syria can induce Hamas to create, with the PLO, a national unity government and endorse a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Within the framework of such a deal, Syria should also agree to absorb the 350,000 Palestinian refugees who reside there as well as help resolve the more acute problem of the 300,000 or so Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

It is true that Syrian President Bashar Assad has not indicated so far that he is willing to curb Hizballah, moderate Hamas or absorb many Palestinian refugees in return for peace with Israel. On the contrary, he has depicted both Hizballah and Hamas as "national liberation movements" and has supported their military buildup vis-a-vis Israel. He has also facilitated the shipment of long-range rockets from Iran to Hizballah while increasing his own arsenal of long-range missiles and solidifying his strategic alliance with Iran. Furthermore, the ability of Hizballah to inflict great destruction and many casualties in northern Israel during the war of July-August 2006, and of Hamas to harass southern Israel in recent months, may have encouraged Damascus to advance its military option versus Israel. Simultaneously, Syria also helps Hamas to foil any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that could isolate Damascus and bar it from retrieving the Golan within the framework of a political settlement with Israel.

Consequently, while slow progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations plays into its hands, Syria is becoming further integrated into the "axis of evil" alongside Iran, Hizballah, Islamic Jihad and increasingly also Hamas.

Conversely, however, it is likely that Damascus' membership in this alliance has been aimed not only to counterbalance Israel's strategic advantage (and the potential American threat from Iraq) but also as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Israel (and the US) for an advantageous political settlement. Thus, Assad may change his relations with Hizballah and Hamas and possibly also with Iran provided he retrieves the Golan Heights from Israel, maintains his strategic influence in Lebanon, gets off the Hariri assassination case, obtains financial help from the West and the Arab Gulf states in order to improve Syria's ailing economy and assures the survival of his own regime as well.

As it happened, since his ascendancy to power in July 2000 Bashar Assad has periodically and publicly suggested renewing peace talks with Israel "without preconditions", while indicating that Syria demands the return of the Golan within the framework of a peace agreement with Israel. Occasionally, however, Assad has made crude anti-Israel and anti-Jewish remarks and threatened to liberate the Golan by military force. In the same vein Damascus was presumably building a nuclear plant with North Korean help (that was destroyed by Israel in September 2007) while participating a few months ago in the Annapolis peace conference that aimed at resolving the Arab-Israel conflict and notably the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Thus, although Damascus has been preparing a strong military deterrent--mostly by long-range missiles--it does not appear to have a military option vis-a-vis Israel. It still prefers the political option, namely a (cold) peace agreement with Israel, as well as mending fences with the US and the Sunni Arab states, without relinquishing its national interests.

The Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, although at odds with Syria, wish to extricate it from the "Shi'ite crescent" with Iran and Hizballah and enlist its help to settle the Lebanese crisis and the Palestinian-Israeli problem. They would probably be ready to reward Syria for its services. By contrast, the United States under the leadership of President George W. Bush is still reluctant to engage Syria unless it submits to tough American pre-conditions: ceasing to support Hizballah, Hamas and Iraqi insurgents as well as ending its meddling in Lebanese politics. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has held similar positions and in late September 2006 even stated that "as long as I serve as prime minister, the Golan Heights will remain in our hands, because it is an integral part of the state of Israel." Notably, though, other Israeli political and military leaders have advocated sounding out Assad's peace overtures.

Ostensibly, Israel can continue its conflict or stalemate with Syria for a long period of time provided it can settle its dispute with the Palestinians soon. Alas, it is evident that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future, owing to critical disagreements over borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements. Both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) also refuse to include Hamas, which represents many Palestinians, in the negotiations, and both leaders lack the courage to make hard decisions. Only a courageous and visionary Israeli leadership can be expected to make a breakthrough toward a comprehensive peace agreement with Syria, Lebanon and Palestine that is likely to improve Israel's relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as with the international community.- Published 14/4/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Moshe Ma'oz is professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.