Friday, December 12, 2008

"Syria's Position is clear: the 'rest' depends on US involvement & Israeli politics" (OXFAN)

SYRIA/ISRAEL: Peace talks depend on "overwhelming US pressure might override the imperatives of Israeli domestic politics"

EVENT: Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday told a gathering of 26 EU ambassadors that he supported talks with Syria, but that the Golan Heights should remain Israeli territory.
SIGNIFICANCE: The incoming Obama administration, in concert with European allies, is likely to work to stabilise the Levant in order to contain the instability threatened by troop withdrawals from Iraq and confrontation over the Iranian nuclear programme. Israeli-Syrian talks will probably be at the forefront of such efforts.
ANALYSIS: Since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah, Israel-Syria relations have fluctuated between concern over the outbreak of a confrontation and hope for peace between the two countries.
Tension and relief. After the war, which Damascus saw as a Hizbollah victory, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad felt confident enough to threaten Israel that he would consider military action or Hizbollah-style resistance to regain the Golan Heights. The atmosphere was worsened by increased troop deployments and exercises on both sides of the border. In the midst of these tensions, Israeli jets attacked northern Syria on September 6, 2007. Israeli and US sources claimed that the strike targeted a Syrian nuclear facility built with the aid of North Korea; Syria denied the allegations. Significantly, Syria did not respond to the attack. Nor did it respond when Hizbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in a Damascus car bomb on February 12. In addition to restoring some measure of Israel's tarnished image of strength, the operations clarified that Assad had no interest in violent confrontation with Israel and demonstrated his ability to control both his military-security establishment and his angry public.
Tentative steps. In late April, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent a message to Assad via Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he said he was ready to committ himself to the "deposit" made by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in August 1993. This was a reference to a note to the Clinton administration expressing Israel's willingness, albeit conditional, to carry out a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. In May 2008, the Israeli and Syrian governments confirmed the resumption of peace talks between the two countries through Turkish mediation -- an unwelcome surprise for the Bush administration, which maintained its hard line towards Syria. The talks were immediately sidelined by an investigation by the Israeli police into corruption allegations against Olmert. What quickly became known as the Talansky affair snowballed to the point of ending Olmert's political career. Nonetheless, Olmert has exploited his remaining time in office to pursue both the Syrian negotiations and other dovish initiatives. The fact that Olmert is the least popular prime minister in Israeli history has helped him promote far-reaching political moves. Feeling unconstrained by public opinion surveys and acting with a grander sense of his own historical importance, he has broken taboos in acknowledging discrimination against Israeli Arabs, in mooting far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, and in publicly acknowledging that the price of peace with Syria is the full return of the Golan Heights. Olmert's initiatives found support in Israel's intelligence and security community, which saw the benefits of drawing Syria away from its Iranian alliance, blocking Iran's influence and containing Hizbollah.
New administration. In January 2009, the new US administration will start its term in office, auguring a subtle shift in Middle East policy .While sharing the Bush administration's determination to contain Iran, the Obama team is much more sensitive to the negative consequences for regional stability that a confrontation would entail. In order to strengthen its hand against Iran, the new administration is likely to reduce and reorient its deployment in Iraq .It will also work to shore up the stability of the Levant. The Israel-Syria negotiations are the low-hanging fruit in such a project. While Israel-Palestinian negotiations are hamstrung by the complexity of the dispute, the fragmentation of the Palestinian side and the political difficulty of withdrawals in Israeli domestic politics, the Israel-Syria talks involve comparatively much simpler conflict. The Golan Heights is home to roughly 20,000 settlers, as compared to roughly 300,000 in the West Bank.
Tactical success. Syria is the immediate winner from the renewed talks with Israel :

  • Assad reinforced his international legitimacy, freeing himself from the isolation of recent years.
  • Syria seems to have extracted from Olmert a commitment to a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967; this commitment will shape any future talks.
  • Syria has as yet sacrificed nothing; ties with Iran and Hizbollah remain strong.

OutloText Colorok. The Syria-Israel talks will be shaped by a number of conclusions the Israeli establishment has reached regarding Syria:
1. Genuine motives. It is now clear to Israel that Syria has a genuine interest in advancing the political process with Israel. This interest is based on a recognition not only among the Syrian leadership, but also in Syrian public opinion, that a peace agreement with Israel is likely to serve Syrian interests.
2. Uncompromising conditions. Syrian terms for achieving a peace agreement remain stiff and uncompromising. Syria is demanding the return of the Golan Heights in its entirety, including the Sea of Galilee shoreline. Exaggerated assessments in Israel regarding Syria's possible flexibility on this issue have been repeatedly shown to have no basis in reality.
3. No radical shift. Syria has not shown willingness to clearly and unambiguously distance itself from Iran and Hizbollah. Syria benefits from the strategic space created by the polarisation of the region between Iran and its opponents. At most Damascus has hinted that it would cool those ties, which one might assume would occur in any event once Syria signed a peace treaty with Israel.
4. No goodwill gestures. Syria continues to avoid confidence-building steps. The picture of Assad turning his back on Olmert in Paris in July 2008 dramatically illustrated this policy. This seriously complicates the prospects for Israeli leaders being able to sell an agreement with Syria to the domestic audience.
The Syrian position being relatively clear, the outcome of the talks will depend more on two other variables:
1. Israeli politics
. Current polls in Israel suggest that the next government will be considerably to the right of the present government. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu is best placed to become prime minister. Even though he has shown himself to be a pragmatic rather than doctrinaire hawk, the bulk of his party is firmly hard-line, comprising those members of the Likud who rejected former prime minister Ariel Sharon's policy of withdrawal from Gaza. A Netanyahu government would furthermore likely depend on support from other right-wing parties that would oppose an agreement. Even should the Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, form the next government, her coalition would likely depend on support from parties opposed to withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However, Israeli politics can be volatile, and much could change between now and the Feburary 10 elections.
2. US involvement. The extent to which the new administration is willing to spend political capital on Israel-Syria talks will be decisive as to the outcome. Without active US sponsorship it will be difficult for the talks to progress. The United States is expected not only to cover the costs of peace, including compensation for Israeli settlers, (see below) additional defence aid to Israel, and an economic aid package for Syria, but to exert pressure on the sides to soften their positions. Only overwhelming US pressure might override the imperatives of Israeli domestic politics. The pressing issues of the global economy, the challenges of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, together with more mundane matters, could distract the new president from the relentless focus required to achieve an Israel-Syria peace treaty. The new administration may well be content with a tactical stabilisation of the Levant without investing the time and money required to achieve a lasting strategic breakthrough.
CONCLUSION: The road towards an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement remains long and difficult; a breakthrough will depend on the willingness and ability of the new US administration to spend its political capital on the talks.

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