Peace, yes, but not at any cost

The Israel-Syria talks

January 16, 2000|By Aron U. Raskas

IN HIGH STAKES negotiations, more than anywhere else, timing, strategy and a sense of purpose are absolutely critical. Grave questions can be raised about whether the Israeli government's approach to the Syrian negotiations has properly accounted for all of these necessary ingredients.

To justify the Oslo negotiations and the ensuing Israeli-Palestinian peace process, government officials and other observers made several arguments to state the case for those negotiations. Yet, almost every argument that supported the case for negotiations with the Palestinians is strikingly absent in the Syrian context.

For example, the argument went, hostile Israeli and Palestinian populations were too closely settled throughout the territories of the West Bank. Since the intifada, the situation on the ground had become intolerable, and was becoming worse. Violent clashes between the two populations were continuous; a disengagement was necessary.

Israel essentially had two equally unattractive choices. It could continue to govern militarily over the seething conditions in the Palestinian territories. Or it could annex those territories into the state of Israel. The second option was fraught with problems, because it would have exposed Israel to hostile world opinion, and the annexation of such a substantial Arab population would have forever imperiled the Jewish character of the state.

Furthermore, militant fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad were quickly gaining the support of the Palestinian people in the West Bank territories and influence in the Arab world. Ironically, Yasser Arafat had been outflanked by more radical and dangerous organizations. Israel had to act quickly to reach a resolution with the PLO, which had become the one entity possibly capable of delivering a peaceful solution with the Palestinian people.

Israel's relationship with Syria is set against completely different circumstances, which make foolhardy any impetuous rush to reach an agreement .

The strategic importance of the Golan Heights is virtually self-evident. A U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff report concluded Israel must retain the Golan Heights to have the capabilities to defend itself militarily against Syria. There must, therefore, be good reason for Israel to abandon that plateau. Regretfully, little such reason can be found.

The Israeli-Syrian line of separation is clearly demarcated. Other than a few relatively peaceful Druze villages, there is little Arab presence on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Disturbances on the Golan Heights are rare, and the Golan Heights is one of the most serene and peaceful places for Israelis to live, work and visit. Nearly 20,000 live there, commerce thrives and hundreds of thousands of people regularly vacation serenely on the Golan Heights.

From a military standpoint, too, the Golan Heights has been Israel's quietest front for the past quarter-century. True, to maintain that situation, Israel must keep a continuing military presence on the Golan Heights. But that presence, coupled with the strategic geographic advantage that Israel enjoys by controlling this strategic plateau, has proven to be a terribly effective means of ensuring the peace on this front.

Another important factor to be considered is that the demise of Syria's leader would not necessarily bring to power a more difficult and intractable negotiating partner. Syrian dictator Hafez el Assad is one of the shrewdest and most ruthless dictators in the Middle East -- one who slaughtered 10,000 of his citizens in the city of Hama to deter future opposition. Yet, even more important from Israel's perspective is the personal stake that Assad has in the Golan Heights. Twice, Assad initiated war with Israel, only to be left each time with Syria's forces vanquished and the Golan Heights squarely in Israeli hands. Having done so, it is absolutely impossible for Assad to accept any resolution that does not fully rehabilitate his standing by reclaiming the entire Golan Heights for Syria.

Assad's likely successors -- his brother, Rifaat, and his son, Bashar -- do not carry Assad's personal baggage. Each has been educated in the West and is undoubtedly far more eager than Assad to see Syria accepted into the "community of nations." With that goal squarely in mind, either would likely show greater flexibility and certainly much less intransigence in reaching an accord with Israel. It is far more likely that in negotiations with either possible successor, Israel could strike a deal to retain at least a significant portion of the Golan Heights.

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