Friday, April 25, 2008

Peace and the Golan Heights

Syria and Israel are said to be indirectly negotiating a deal over the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty between the two nations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly acting as the intermediary and will meet with President Bashar Assad in Damascus over the weekend.

For over 40 years Israel has been willing to explore the possibility of a withdrawal to the international border (not the 1949 Armistice Line that was the demilitarized zone) in exchange for true peace. The Golan would have to be completely demilitarized; the Syrians would have to commit not to obstruct the flow of water into Israel; and there would have to be ironclad international guarantees that the treaty would stand the test of time.

It is germane to recall how Israel first came to control the strategic mountains in the first place. In the early 1960s Syria sought to divert the flow of water from Israel. Saboteurs based in Syrian training camps infiltrated via Jordan and Lebanon. In April 1967, the Syrian military that was entrenched atop the Heights, which tower 700 meters above the Galilee, unleashed an unusually fierce shelling of Israeli communities below. Then IDF chief of General Staff Yitzhak Rabin warned the Ba'ath regime that it would face severe consequences if its unprovoked aggression persisted.

In response, a Syrian-Egyptian alliance, under Russian sponsorship, readied for war. Then Syrian defense minister Hafez Assad - Bashar Assad's father - announced that his country was ready to "liberate" and "explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army with its finger on the trigger is united. I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation."

Facing massed armies on its borders and hysterical threats from Arab leaders, Israel struck first on June 5, 1967 and captured the Golan along with Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Sinai. Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, but was repulsed.

SINCE THEN, the Syrians have remained a force for instability in the region. They are a state sponsor of terrorism, house Hamas in Damascus and maintain Hizbullah's lifeline to Teheran. Along the way, Syria has been implicated in the assassination of Lebanese politicians and in funneling jihadi gunmen into Iraq. Syria has virtually melded its foreign and security policies with those of Iran. And now it is revealed that, for the past five years, Syria has been collaborating with North Korea on building a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium.

It is unclear why Syria leaked news of Ankara's efforts to facilitate a deal on the Golan. Does Assad want to distract the world from revelations in Washington about his ties to North Korea? Was the mysterious liquidation of Hizbullah's Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus Assad's way of signaling a readiness to break with Hassan Nasrallah and Iran? Has Syria's Alawite ruling clique rethought its relationship with the Persian Shi'ites given that its own population is 74% Sunni Arab?

WHATEVER HIS motivations, Israel should judge Assad by what he says and what he does. Assad insists that even under a peace treaty normalization is out of the question. This is how he put it at a conference in Damascus last week: "Restoration of land and rights may lead to relations based on routine, but not [necessarily] normalization. What happened in Jordan and Egypt is proof to us that the public does not want normalization, and therefore nobody can impose it on anybody else. I know that the Syrian people reject normalization and therefore I will not impose it on them."

It is in Israel's long-term interest to have a peace treaty with Syria, but not at any price. Israel would have to make irrevocable strategic concessions. So it's hard to imagine many Israelis having the confidence to support a deal that does not signify a true opening of genuine peaceful relations.

If Assad wants a treaty, we urge him to come to Jerusalem or invite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Damascus. After 60 years of unremitting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement Syrians may indeed not be ready for normalization. But if he wants Israelis to risk all by ceding the Golan, Assad is going to have to show that he truly wants a change - and he is going to have to take some chances too.

No comments:

My Archive