U.S. Blocks Israel-Syria Talks

Even as American officials reluctantly agreed last month to include Syrian representatives in multiparty talks on Iraqi security issues, the Bush administration continues to block Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria over its security concerns. In 2003, President Bashar al-Assad offered to resume peace talks with Israel where they had left off three years earlier, but Israel, backed by the Bush administration, refused. Assad eventually agreed to reenter peace negotiations without preconditions, but even these overtures were rejected.

Beginning in 2005, with the knowledge of their governments, private Israeli and Syrian negotiators began crafting a draft treaty to end the decades-long conflict between the two countries. The Bush administration, however, downplayed the talks’ significance.

Following last summer’s war in Lebanon, several prominent members of the Israeli cabinet – including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avid Dichter – called on their government to resume negotiations with Syria. Although Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a senior aide to prepare for possible talks, such initiatives did not get any support from Washington. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, it appeared that “Israel would be prepared to open a channel with Syria but does not want to upset the Bush administration.”

Indeed, when Israeli officials asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about pursuing exploratory talks with Syria, her answer, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was, “don’t even think about it.” Similarly, the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reports that Israeli government officials “understood from President Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between Israel and Syria.”

Such pressure appears to have worked. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly expressed concern that it would inappropriate to counter President Bush at a time when his policies are being seriously challenged at home, since he has such a “clear position on this issue” and he is “Israel’s most important ally.” Similarly, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres was quoted as saying, “The worse thing we could do is contradict the United States, which opposes negotiating with Syria.” Interior Minister Ronni Baron told a television reporter, “When the question on the agenda is the political legacy of Israel’s greatest friend, President Bush, do we really need now to enter into negotiations with Syria?”

Hostility to Earlier Initiatives

Israel and Syria came very close to a peace agreement in early 2000. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to withdraw from Syrian territory occupied since the June 1967 war in return for Syria agreeing to strict security guarantees, normalized relations, the demilitarization of the strategic Golan Heights and the cessation of support for radical anti-Israel groups. Only a dispute regarding the exact demarcation of the border, constituting no more than a few hundred yards, prevented a final settlement.

With the death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad later that year and the coming to power of the right-wing Likud Bloc in the subsequent election, talks were indefinitely suspended. Assad’s successor, Bashar al-Assad, called for the resumption of talks where they left off, but both Israel and the United States rejected the proposal.

The Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress in 2003, demands that “the Governments of Lebanon and Syria should enter into serious unconditional bilateral negotiations with the Government of Israel in order to realize a full and permanent peace.” Congress and the administration insisted that Syria enter new talks “unconditionally” rather than resume them from the two parties’ earlier negotiating positions – in which both sides made major concessions and came very close to success after several years. In so doing, the U.S. government effectively rejected the position of the more moderate Israeli government of former Prime Minister Barak and instead embraced the rejectionist position of the current right-wing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

As a result, it is unclear how the U.S. government’s demand that Syria enter into such negotiations with an occupying power that categorically refuses to withdraw from its conquered land will “realize a full and permanent peace.” Indeed, Congress and the administration appear to want to force Syria to capitulate entirely and accept Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan region. If so, this demand is unrealistic. The UN Charter expressly forbids any nation from expanding its territory by force, recognizing Israel’s annexation would violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions, and no Syrian government – even a hypothetically democratic one – could ever accept such a settlement.

It is also noteworthy that Congress and the administration insist that both Syria and Lebanon enter into bilateral negotiations with Israel instead of multilateral negotiations. Such multilateral negotiations, called for by UN Security Council resolution 338, makes particular sense given the interrelated concerns of these three nations. In any case, prior to President Bush signed the Accountability Act into law, President Assad announced Syria’s willingness to accede to U.S. and Israeli demands and resume talks with Israel unconditionally.

In response to these initiatives, Israel announced at the end of 2003 that it would double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan region of Syria. According to Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz , who also chaired the government’s settlements committee, “The aim is to send an unequivocal message: the Golan is an integral part of Israel.” This renewed colonization drive is also a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits any occupying power from transferring its civilian population onto territories seized my military force, and UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471, which call on Israel to refrain from building additional settlements and withdraw from existing settlements.

Israeli Public Challenges Bush

Within Israel, however, there is also a growing awareness that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would not jeopardize Israeli security. While maintaining the high ground may have constituted a strategic advantage 40 years ago, it is far less important in an era when the principal threats to Israel’s security come in the form of suicide bombers and long-range missiles. Israeli army chief Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon observes that, from a strategic perspective, Israel could cede the Golan Heights in return for peace and successfully defend Israel’s internationally-recognized border.

With Syria calling for a resumption of peace talks, pressure has been growing within Israel to resume negotiations, with polls showing that a majority of Israelis support such efforts. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, argues for the need to engage with Syria, otherwise the Bush administration “will forfeit another historic opportunity to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however remote that prospect may now seem.”

Many Israelis also recognize the broader implication of resuming dialogue with Damascus, in that it would likely reduce Iran’s regional influence, weaken the threat from Hezbollah, improve Israel’s relations with other Arab states, and encourage more pragmatic Palestinian voices while weakening extremists. “The moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle East,” says Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, “and we can begin renewing ties with other Arab states.” Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, notes how “the mere sight of Israeli and Syrian official sitting side by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular opinion in is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state’s right to exist, an putting Syrian allies than oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward position.”

As a result, the pressure from the Bush administration on Israel to reject Syria’s offer for negotiations and the Israeli government’s willingness to give in to such pressure has led to growing resentment in Israel. According to the normally hawkish Maariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini, “We’ve always said that our arms are extended in peace. That is, unless the Americans twist them.” The eminent Israeli novelist Amos Oz asks, “Why should Israel suspend one of its paramount national interests – peace with its neighbors – for the sake of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of its relations with a foreign government?”

Debra DeLee, head of the liberal pro-Israel group Americans for Peace Now, says that “it takes a lot of chutzpah to tell Israel not to even talk about peace with its neighbor.” She goes on to assert that it was “outrageous…for the President to pressure Israel not to negotiate.”

Putting Syria into a Trap

Ironically, the Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress in 2003, contains a provision prohibiting any U.S. assistance to Syria until the U.S. president “determines that substantial progress has been made . . . in negotiations aimed at achieving a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.” Given the administration’s repeated efforts to block such negotiations from taking place in the first place, it obviously makes it difficult for Syria to comply.

The primary motivation may be more sinister, however.

The Jerusalem Post reported on July 30 that President Bush pushed Israel to expand the war beyond Lebanon, with Israeli military officials “receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria.” In the early days of the fighting, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams reportedly met with a very senior Israeli official to underscore Washington’s support for extending the war to Syria, but Israeli officials described the idea as “nuts” and decided to limit their military operations to Lebanon. Haaretz noted that some in Washington were “disappointed by Israel’s decision not to attack Syria at the same time.” Meyrav Wurmser, head of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute and wife of the principal Middle East advisor for Vice-President Cheney, went further, declaring that there was “a lot of anger” in Washington that Israel did not attack Syria, which she argued would have served “U.S. objectives.” U.S. officials also hoped that an Israeli invasion of Lebanon might lead Syrian troops to re-enter Lebanon to defend the country from the Israeli invasion, which could then be used as an excuse to expand the war to Syria itself.

Not everyone in Israel supports attacking Syria on behalf of the United States. As bad as the Assad regime may be, forcing its overthrow could result in a new regime that is far worse. Following a forced departure of the Baathists who have ruled for over 44 years, radical Sunni Islamists would be most likely poised to take advantage of the inevitable chaos.

However, the Bush administration appears quite willing to continue its divide-and-rule policies in the Middle East by preventing the resumption of talks that could end hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It is yet another reminder that the problem with U.S. policy is not that it is too “pro-Israel,” but that it is anti-peace.