THE WORLD : MIDEAST : Why a Syrian-Israeli Peace May Have to Wait

Shibley Telhami, director of the Near Eastern studies program at Cornell University, is currently visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, writing a book on U.S. policy toward the Middle East

On the eve of Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s 16th visit to the Middle East, hopes are high that the Syrians and the Israelis will finally make peace. Yet, while some optimism is justified, little progress appears to have been made on the crucial issues separating the parties. Although the two countries stand to gain much by making peace, they also stand to lose little if a treaty does not materialize before the next Israeli and U.S. elections. Christopher, beware.

To be sure, the Syrians have been making uncharacteristically positive statements both about Shimon Peres, Israel’s new leader, and about their intention to accelerate negotiations “without preconditions.” Therein lies a problem: The very reasons for Syria’s new attitude also incline its government to be even tougher on the important issues that separate the two sides.

Since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the Syrians have come to accept what they had been reluctant to believe: Political divisions in Israel are real and consequential for foreign policy. They had always suspected that U.S. efforts to stress the importance of Israeli politics as a factor in negotiations were merely intended to pressure Syria into compromising. Some headway had been made on this score, especially as a result of a breakthrough visit to Syria, in 1994, by an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset. Rabin’s murder cemented Syrian’s new perceptions.


But Syria’s openness toward the new Israeli leadership is matched by its fear of the conservative Likud Party. What the Syrians cannot accept is any deal whose implementation would be contingent on the outcome of the next Israeli elections, scheduled for October. Thus, it is unlikely that Syria will settle for any agreement that involves phases requiring future negotiations. But this is precisely the sort of pact the Israeli government wants as a way to “build confidence” and secure more domestic support for its military withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

U.S. mediating efforts can succeed, therefore, only if they focus on one of two extremes: a final, comprehensive agreement or a simple “declaration of principles” modest enough not to imperil Peres’ presidential prospects. Nothing in between is likely to work.

The Israeli government has explained its new approach to its public by pointing out that full peace between Israel and the Arab states can only come through a deal with Damascus, and that while Rabin believed that the road to peace came through security, Peres believes that “the road to security comes through peace.” But Peres also sees tactical benefits in his approach. Following the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, Peres believed that Rabin’s “hesitant” approach suggested that he was not fully sold on its virtues, thus undermining domestic support. In contrast, his strategy of exalting the future benefits of peace with Syria, and his expressed confidence in the process, seem to have rallied public support for his efforts.

In the end, however, the bottom lines of Syria and Israel have not been significantly transformed. Nor have the incentives to change the measures of success. Syria will accept no lesser deal than Egypt got at Camp David. President Hafez Assad will insist on full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, complete dismantlement of Israeli settlements there and the rejection of any Israeli warning facilities on the ground. Nothing, so far, indicates that Syria is willing to deviate from these positions.

The question of Syria’s borders further complicates the issues. Syria demands that Israel withdraw from all Syrian territories it occupied in the 1967 war. Israel is suggesting that Syria’s borders comply with their demarcation in 1923. The disputed land is small (about 20 square miles) but significant for Israel’s water supply. How willing Syria will be to compromise on this issue is unclear, but the best bet is that it will not budge. This means that Syrian compromises--and incentives for Israel--will have to all come from the “depth” of peace that Syria offers, the extent to which Syria can persuade other Arab states to make a deal with Israel, and security guarantees in the form of demilitarized zones and the stationing of international peacekeeping forces in these zones.

Which is where the United States comes in. Besides the crucial diplomatic role the United States plays, American political clout can be used to create a regional incentive package for both Israel and Syria. The assumption that U.S. peacekeeping forces will have to be stationed in the Golan Heights is already a forgone conclusion. Although this will provoke some opposition in Congress, it will ultimately be approved. But neither Syria nor Israel can count on any new significant aid like that promised in the Camp David accords. The United States will have to concentrate on rallying the international financial community to support any deal, as it did with the Palestinian-Israeli accords.

Still, a Syrian-Israeli peace will be well worth the extraordinary mediating efforts of the United States. But even with the best of intentions and efforts, an agreement will not materialize unless both Israeli and Syrian leaders make some tough decisions. Syria must accept full diplomatic relations with Israel, accompanied by significant steps toward “normalizing” its ties. As for Israel, it must fully withdraw from the Golan Heights. Although both sides may already be inclined to move in these directions, they can afford to wait a bit longer. Peres can go into the Israeli elections legitimately claiming that he has tried to make peace with Syria but that his security concerns have not been eased. Assad need not worry about any short-term cost in dragging out the talks. It is Christopher, who has given this issue his highest priority as a symbol of his legacy at the State Department, who may be taking the biggest risk.