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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - April 16, 2007

Alpher answers questions on possible Israel-Syria negotiations and significance of Arab Peace Initiative

Q. Last week, you expressed pessimism regarding renewal of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, based on global and regional constraints as well as Israeli domestic political realities. Can you expand on this?

A. At the global level, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has cited Bush administration admonitions as one rationale for not negotiating with Syria. But Washington is not the only important capital cautioning Jerusalem against "rewarding" Damascus and enabling it to wiggle out of international pressures on issues like permitting jihadi infiltration into Iraq, sabotaging stability in Lebanon and abetting terrorism. Riyadh and Amman, too, have signaled Olmert that they would frown upon an Israeli decision to open a peace track with Syria.

The Saudi position regarding the Bashar Asad regime's transgressions is close to the American line, with special emphasis on Syria's implicit guilt in the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri, a Saudi favorite. Jordan is angry with Asad over his support for Hamas affiliates that have targeted the regime in Amman and his provocative steps on a host of water and border issues. Both are concerned that Syria is enabling Iranian expansion in the region. The reservations of these neighbors are an important consideration for any Israeli government.

According to a senior former diplomat in the region who recently held high level meetings in Damascus, the Syrians seem incredibly unaware of the negative impression left by these and additional instances of their interaction with the region in the past four decades. At the same time, they also have powerful motives for seeking a peace process with Israel.

One motive is the Syrian economy, which is in bad shape and will deteriorate further within 5-7 years when oil exports end. The Syrian leadership believes that a peace process with Israel is the only way to develop economic alternatives that involve an opening to the West, and is impressed by the economic benefits gained by Egypt and Jordan from their peace agreements with Israel. Another rationale for seeking peace is Syria's growing dependence on its alliance with Iran. Until a few years ago, Damascus was the senior partner in that relationship; now, with Iran flexing its nuclear muscles and aggressively pursuing regional hegemony, the pecking order has been reversed, increasing Syria's regional isolation and regime frustration.

The Syrian approach to peace negotiations with Israel is narrow, focusing on bilateral issues. Senior Syrian officials recognize that Israel will introduce a host of demands regarding regional issues, particularly terrorism and Lebanon, but they are not inclined to negotiate them. They argue (correctly) that Israel has been rejecting their peace overtures for years. They display a keen interest in discussing aspects of the negotiations held during the Netanyahu years, when Ron Lauder served as a secret intermediary. On the other hand, they dismiss out of hand the significance of the recent Alon Liel-Ibrahim Suleiman track II efforts.

Apropos the latter project Suleiman, a Syrian-American, appeared last week before the Knesset Foreign and Security Affairs Committee, where testimony from a foreigner, and a Syrian at that, is most unusual. In a provocative exchange, Prof. Uzi Arad, an adviser to the committee and the official who handled the Syrian-Israeli negotiations under Netanyahu, charged that Suleiman had acknowledged to him that the Asad regime was not really interested in peace. Suleiman denied the claim, which Arad says he can substantiate. Arad participated in the early stages of the Liel-Suleiman meetings, but withdrew in protest over what he described as a sham process.

Then there are Olmert's domestic difficulties. With his popularity rating at record lows and anticipation of the Winograd Commission's recommendations rendering him a semi-lame duck, he arguably does not have a mandate to engage in any new diplomatic departure. In the event, he has signaled his agreement to meet with an Egyptian-Jordanian-Palestinian committee representing the Arab League to discuss implementation of the Arab peace initiative. Those talks will undoubtedly focus on a Palestinian rather than a Syrian peace track.

A number of observers concur that, after repeated rebuffs, Syrian skepticism regarding Israel's interest in a peace process is growing. Even discounting rosy media accounts from Damascus that play up Syria's ostensibly positive inter-Arab pose, its protests of cooperation regarding Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine and its readiness to discuss all of Israel's agenda items, and despite American, Saudi and Jordanian reservations--Israel has every interest in exploring the feasibility of renewing constructive peace talks by entering into preliminary contacts with Syria. At a minimum, in view of the growing dangers of war on Israel's northern borders, Jerusalem owes it to its armed forces whose lives could be on the line to make every effort to try first to negotiate with Syria.

Q. Apropos the Arab League offer to discuss the Arab peace initiative, how significant a breakthrough is this?

A. On the one hand, the Arab League as an institution has never had formal contacts with Israel, so this is an important step. It appears to constitute the Arab League's and Saudi Arabia's reply to the entreaties from Israel and many capitals of the world that last month's Arab summit decision to reconfirm the Arab peace initiative be accompanied by an effort to reach out to Israel and discuss its response to the initiative. In this regard, PM Olmert's declared readiness to meet with an Arab League delegation is welcome.

On the other hand, the League appears to be sending only officials from Egypt, Jordan and the PLO to meet with Israel, i.e., only members that have well-established relations with Israel. The absence from the delegation of additional League members, and particularly Saudi Arabia, is disappointing. The Saudis will be involved in a 13-member steering committee--made up of the Arab states that have had dealings in the past with Israel in the form of low-level relations or multilateral talks. It meets later this week to formulate the framework for talks. Needless to say, Syria is not represented in the League's delegation to Israel, a clear indication once again of the lack of priority assigned to Israeli-Syrian talks by the Saudis and others. In the absence of Saudis and Syrians, there is an air of anti-climax about the prospective talks.

Beyond this limited but important breakthrough in format, the substance of these talks is of even greater importance. If the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians simply intend to read aloud the contents of the Arab peace initiative and declare that Israel must now make peace with Palestine, Syria and Lebanon in order to qualify for the Arabs' promised normalization, these talks will be of little significance. By the same token, if Olmert thinks he can bypass the Palestinians by talking to the Arab League, he is sadly mistaken.

To be useful, an Arab League-sponsored forum like this should be prepared to discuss Israel's reservations and requests for clarifications regarding the Arab peace initiative, for example, concerning the initiative's demand that Israel return completely to the 1967 lines and that a refugee solution be based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194. It should be authorized to lay out details of the normalization and security arrangements promised by the initiative, and at least agree to discuss rewarding Israel with partial normalization as the peace process advances. In this context, it should clarify the question of the priority attached to negotiations with Syria. Perhaps most important, it should be qualified to offer the good offices of the Arab League to support negotiations with guarantees and other assurances that could conceivably compensate for Palestinian weaknesses.

This is where a concerted effort by Washington and the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia) to influence Arab policy could be useful.

Finally, it is intriguing to note the dramatic evolution of Israel's position with regard to the question of bringing additional Arab states into the peace process. Until recently, Israeli governments vigorously opposed efforts by Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to "internationalize" the conflict by bringing in neighbor states. Now, in view of the PLO's weakness as a negotiating partner and the threats looming from Iran and Iraq, Israel is actively courting those same neighbors and suggesting they play a role.