Shlomo Ben-ami
The Daily Star (Opinion)
October 12, 2007 - 2:12pm

An Arab-Israeli peace requires a comprehensive approach, because the problems at stake are intertwined. Not only are key issues such as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees insoluble without an all-Arab consensus, but any country that is left out of the peace process is bound to persist in its role as a revolutionary power bent on regional destabilization.

Admittedly, Israeli governments have never liked the idea of negotiating peace with all enemies simultaneously, if only because the political costs of the required concessions would be unbearable. The Israeli strategy of peacemaking therefore oscillates between two visions: While the Israeli left gives priority to the Palestinian problem, the Israeli right prefers pursuing a settlement with the big Arab powers.

The current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the American veto on negotiations with Syria indicate that we have returned to the "Palestine first" concept. But the prospects of success are desperately dim. With the Americans still refraining from engaging in a Clinton-like level of committed mediation, the parties look to be incapable of meeting each other's minimal requirements for a settlement.

Their failure would have dire consequences for the entire region. The Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbullah axis would be emboldened in its challenge to American leadership in the region, and, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas humbled and defeated, a third intifada would be a likely scenario.

It is therefore vitally important to take Syria, an ally of Iran and the patron of spoilers such as Hamas and Hizbullah, out of the war equation. But this requires that both Israel and the United States change course. Syria has a keen interest in being invited into a US-led settlement with Israel. The muted response of the Arab states to Israel's recent mysterious air raid on its territory reflects its isolation within the Arab world - an isolation with which the Syrians are extremely uncomfortable.

The Baathist regime in Damascus is marked by two major formative experiences: Hafez Assad's loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967 and his son Bashar's loss of Lebanon in 2005. Recovering the Golan, gaining recognition of Syria's special interests in Lebanon, and reconciling with America are thus vital objectives for the regime and the best way that Bashar Assad can boost his legitimacy at home.

Syria's readmission into the Arab consensus and financial support from the Gulf monarchies for abandoning the Shiite alliance with Iran and Hizbullah would also be significant gains. Bashar may lack his father's acumen, but he, too, knows a simple truth: Peace with Israel is the price to pay.

The question remains whether Bashar understands that peace is not only about regaining the Golan, but also about normalization of relations with Israel, which his father was reluctant to allow. The older Assad feared that open borders and the end of the politics of conflict might erode his one-party system. Peace thus requires a degree of political and socioeconomic change to diminish the appetite for military adventurism.

A Damascene conversion is not only possible, but is also vital for regional peace. The most realistic scenario is now a three-front war pitting Israel against Syria, Hamas, and Hizbullah. But a Syrian-Israeli peace would drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, thereby cutting off Hizbullah's lines of arms supply while allowing the vital task of stabilizing Lebanon to succeed.

The only way to extricate Syria from the fatal Iranian embrace is to draw it into a regional scheme for peace. Alas, precisely because of their isolation and the Baathist regime's paranoid nature, the Syrians are unlikely to meet the US condition for peace talks: abandoning their current rogue alliances and their marriage with terror. But a Damascene conversion can only be the outcome of negotiations, not a prerequisite for them.

The idea that the Arab-Israeli peace process requires choosing between a Syrian or a Palestinian track has proved to be a dangerous fallacy. Neither Palestinians nor Syrians will acquiesce to their exclusion. A revolutionary force in international relations is one whose level of dissatisfaction with the status quo is such that it works to undermine it at any price.

In addition to reviewing the state of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the November Middle East conference that President George W. Bush has called should begin to build a platform for an Israeli-Syrian negotiating track and a region-wide forum where clear rules of conduct and engagement are agreed by all. Of course, this conference will not bring an end to the Damascus-Tehran axis. But if the US exercises a brand of statesmanship different from the one that has so far put it on the defensive on almost every front, it could start to eat away at the foundations of that axis.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017