Mohamad Bazzi
The National (Opinion)
December 18, 2009 - 1:00am

Is peace possible between Syria and Israel? That question has taken on new urgency after the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to negotiate with the Syrian president Bashar Assad “anytime, anywhere” – and Mr Assad rebuffed the approach.

He is correct in assuming that a meeting with Mr Netanyahu at the moment would be nothing more than a photo-op. But that should not discourage the administration of the US president Barack Obama from pushing for renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Instead of a direct meeting with the Israeli leader, Mr Assad has suggested that the two sides continue indirect negotiations through Turkey (Israeli and Syrian officials held a series of meetings last year through Turkish intermediaries, but Mr Assad broke off the talks after the Israeli invasion of Gaza).

The Syrian-Israeli track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in which the two sides are still far apart on the central issues: Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem. By contrast, the Syrians and Israelis need to negotiate mainly over the return of the Golan Heights (strategic terrain that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war) and related security guarantees and water access issues.

Unlike the weak Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal. Such an agreement is possible during Mr Obama’s presidency, but it will not happen without the deep involvement of his administration. The US has much to gain strategically from renewed Syrian-Israeli dialogue: Damascus could be pressed to play a more constructive role in the region, instead of being a spoiler. To achieve peace, the US must strongly push Israel back to negotiations and be willing to dispatch US personnel as monitors of any final agreement.

There is a well-established framework for an Syrian-Israeli deal – and one of its architects is Frederic Hof, who currently serves as deputy to George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace. Over the past decade, he has proposed some of the most concrete ideas for solving this conflict, including a draft Syria-Israel peace treaty.

Just before he joined the administration in March, Mr Hof wrote a report for the US Institute of Peace in which he laid out the idea of creating a nature reserve on the Golan Heights and parts of the Jordan river valley that would be returned to Syria. The reserve, which would be administered by Syria, is based on existing parks and nature reserves created by Israel during its occupation. The area would be accessible to both Syrians and Israelis to encourage informal, people-to-people contacts that could solidify a peace agreement.

Syria has consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if the entire Golan Heights and small tracts in the Jordan river valley are returned. In January 2000, the US president Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Hafez Assad (Bashar’s father) and the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land, about 500 metres wide, that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel.

In his report, Mr Hof lays out in detail how these thorny disputes over access to water can be resolved. He writes that the plan “embodies a fundamental trade-off: Syria gets the land and regulated access to the water, and Israel gets the water and regulated access to the land”.

Despite his rhetoric, Mr Assad has shown a willingness to negotiate and he revels in the idea of proving to the world that Syria holds the crucial cards to peace and stability in the Middle East.

There is even an Arab framework for resuming talks, and Syria has signed on to it. The Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia at the 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut offers a peace deal between Israel and all Arab states. The plan calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands captured during the 1967 war, the creation of a Palestinian state with sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a “just solution” to the problem of more than 3.5 million Palestinian refugees.

Yet even without a regional settlement, Israel has much to gain from a deal over the Golan. It would mean not only a peace treaty with Syria, but the end of Syrian aid to what is now Israel’s most dangerous enemy: Hizbollah, who did surprisingly well in their war with a far superior Israeli army in the summer of 2006.

Israel has exchanged occupied land for peace and security before: after the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt, Israeli forces withdrew fully from the Sinai peninsula and Israel was able to neutralise its most dangerous military rival at the time. In the end, it was a good bargain for Israel – and for the US, which now counts Egypt among its most important strategic allies in the Arab world.

If there are serious negotiations, the US can demand that Mr Assad’s regime stop interfering in Iraq, carry out domestic reforms, respect human rights, and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel.

There is an opening to revive this long-dormant track of the peace process. The Obama administration should not squander it.

Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University.


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