Shlomo Ben-ami
The Daily Star
June 6, 2008 - 2:46pm

The resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria after eight years of saber-rattling is not a diversion from the political troubles of Israel's lame-duck prime minister. Nor are the talks a Syrian ploy to avoid facing a Lebanese-international tribunal on the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. An Israeli-Syrian peace deal is strategically vital for both sides, and both sides know it.

The two major formative experiences of Syria's Baath regime have been Hafez Assad's loss of the Golan Heights in the 1967 war with Israel, and the loss of Lebanon by his son, Bashar, who was forced to withdraw his army under irresistible American-led international pressure. Recovering the Golan and protecting Syria's vital interests in Lebanon are not only major strategic concerns for Syria's president; they are also crucial to the regime's drive for national legitimacy, and to Assad's assertion of his own leadership. 

Peace with Israel is not Assad's priority. Rather, it is the prerequisite without which superior goals - rapprochement with the United States, legitimization of Syria's special status in Lebanon, and avoidance of a potentially devastating war with Israel if the Golan Heights are not recovered by peaceful means - cannot be attained. Indeed, the regime has hinted that it may be willing to compromise on the issue - the delineation of the 1967 border along a tiny piece of land on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee - that wrecked the negotiations eight years ago.

An Israeli-Syrian peace is a weighty strategic necessity for Israel, too. The complexities of the threats to Israel are such that a possible confrontation with Hamas in Gaza might trigger a flare-up with Hizbullah in Lebanon. Such a war could be won only by the total destruction of Lebanon by Israel's air force. In that case, Syria would likely seize the opportunity to break the deadlock over the Golan Heights through a military move that could develop into a massive war of missiles targeting Israel's vulnerable home front. And Iran, in its drive to protect its nuclear program from an Israeli-American attack, might be very active in supporting this ominous scenario.

Admittedly, the strategic conditions in the region are far more complex today than they were eight years ago, when Israel's requirements for a deal with Syria focused mainly on security arrangements on the Golan Heights, and on Syria using its leverage in Lebanon to permit an Israeli settlement with that country. Syria's alliance with Iran was not a major issue.

Syria's subsequent forced withdrawal from Lebanon was not good news for Israel. In the last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks eight years ago, it was clear that a deal with Syria would automatically pave the way to a settlement with Lebanon, and an end to Hizbullah's threat to Israel's northern border. Today, peace with Syria might facilitate an Israeli peace with Lebanon down the road, but that will not be an automatic outcome. Indeed, while Hizbullah prospered under Syrian occupation, it never reached the extraordinary political power that it has today.

Nevertheless, peace with Syria could be a major building block in a wider Israeli-Arab settlement, and consequently of a more stable Middle East, though it is unrealistic to expect that Syria would automatically sever its special relationship with Iran in exchange for the Golan Heights. These are peace talks, not a defense treaty, and Syria would not abruptly disengage from its Iranian friends. But good relations between an Arab state at peace with Israel and Iran are not necessarily a bad thing. Syria's stance might limit, rather than extend, the reach of Iran's strategy of regional destabilization.

As always, much will depend on America's readiness to move away from military solutions and rigid ideological imperatives and instead embrace the pragmatic culture of conflict resolution. A US-backed Israeli-Syrian peace could transform the strategic environment, potentially drawing other Middle East spoilers into a system of regional cooperation and security.


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