Even as American officials reluctantly agreed
last month to include Syrian representatives in multiparty talks on Iraqi security
issues, the Bush administration continues to block Israel from resuming negotiations
with Syria over its security concerns. In 2003, President Bashar al-Assad offered
to resume peace talks with Israel where they had left off three years earlier,
but Israel, backed by the Bush administration, refused. Assad eventually agreed
to reenter peace negotiations without preconditions, but even these overtures
Beginning in 2005, with the knowledge of their governments, private Israeli
and Syrian negotiators began crafting a draft treaty to end the decades-long
conflict between the two countries. The Bush administration, however, downplayed
the talks' significance.
Following last summer's war in Lebanon, several prominent members of the Israeli
cabinet including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security
Minister Avid Dichter called on their government to resume negotiations
with Syria. Although Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a senior aide to
prepare for possible talks, such initiatives did not get any support from Washington.
According to the
Jewish Daily Forward, it appeared that "Israel would be prepared
to open a channel with Syria but does not want to upset the Bush administration."
Indeed, when Israeli officials asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about
pursuing exploratory talks with Syria, her answer, according to the Israeli
Haaretz, was, "don't even think about it." Similarly,
the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth
reports that Israeli government officials "understood from President
Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between
Israel and Syria."
Such pressure appears to have worked. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly
expressed concern that it would inappropriate to counter President Bush at a
time when his policies are being seriously challenged at home, since he has
such a "clear position on this issue" and he is "Israel's most
important ally." Similarly, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres was quoted
as saying, "The worse thing we could do is contradict the United States,
which opposes negotiating with Syria." Interior Minister Ronni Baron
told a television reporter, "When the question on the agenda is the
political legacy of Israel's greatest friend, President Bush, do we really need
now to enter into negotiations with Syria?"
Hostility to Earlier Initiatives
Israel and Syria came very close to a peace agreement
in early 2000. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to
withdraw from Syrian territory occupied since the June 1967 war in return for
Syria agreeing to strict security guarantees, normalized relations, the demilitarization
of the strategic Golan Heights and the cessation of support for radical anti-Israel
groups. Only a dispute regarding the exact demarcation of the border, constituting
no more than a few hundred yards, prevented a final settlement.
With the death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad later that year and the coming
to power of the right-wing Likud Bloc in the subsequent election, talks were
indefinitely suspended. Assad's successor, Bashar al-Assad, called for the resumption
of talks where they left off, but both Israel and the United States rejected
The Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority
of the U.S. Congress in 2003, demands
that "the Governments of Lebanon and Syria should enter into serious
unconditional bilateral negotiations with the Government of Israel in order
to realize a full and permanent peace." Congress and the administration
insisted that Syria enter new talks "unconditionally" rather than
resume them from the two parties' earlier negotiating positions in which
both sides made major concessions and came very close to success after several
years. In so doing, the U.S. government effectively rejected the position of
the more moderate Israeli government of former Prime Minister Barak and instead
embraced the rejectionist position of the current right-wing Prime Minister
As a result, it is unclear how the U.S. government's demand that Syria enter
into such negotiations with an occupying power that categorically refuses to
withdraw from its conquered land will "realize a full and permanent peace."
Indeed, Congress and the administration appear to want to force Syria to capitulate
entirely and accept Israel's annexation of Syria's Golan region. If so, this
demand is unrealistic. The UN Charter expressly forbids any nation from expanding
its territory by force, recognizing Israel's annexation would violate a series
of UN Security Council resolutions, and no Syrian government even a hypothetically
democratic one could ever accept such a settlement.
It is also noteworthy that Congress and the administration insist that both
Syria and Lebanon enter into bilateral negotiations with Israel instead
of multilateral negotiations. Such multilateral negotiations, called
for by UN Security Council resolution 338, makes particular sense given the
interrelated concerns of these three nations. In any case, prior to President
Bush signed the Accountability Act into law, President Assad
announced Syria's willingness to accede to U.S. and Israeli demands and
resume talks with Israel unconditionally.
In response to these initiatives, Israel announced at the end of 2003 that
it would double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan region of
According to Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz , who also chaired the government's
settlements committee, "The aim is to send an unequivocal message: the
Golan is an integral part of Israel." This renewed colonization drive is
also a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits any
occupying power from transferring its civilian population onto territories seized
my military force, and UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471,
which call on Israel to refrain from building additional settlements and withdraw
from existing settlements.
Israeli Public Challenges Bush
Within Israel, however, there is also a growing
awareness that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would not jeopardize Israeli
security. While maintaining the high ground may have constituted a strategic
advantage 40 years ago, it is far less important in an era when the principal
threats to Israel's security come in the form of suicide bombers and long-range
missiles. Israeli army chief Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon
observes that, from a strategic perspective, Israel could cede the Golan
Heights in return for peace and successfully defend Israel's internationally-recognized
With Syria calling for a resumption of peace talks, pressure has been growing
within Israel to resume negotiations, with polls showing that a majority of
Israelis support such efforts. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations
at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University,
argues for the need to engage with Syria, otherwise the Bush administration
"will forfeit another historic opportunity to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli
conflict, however remote that prospect may now seem."
Many Israelis also recognize the broader implication of resuming dialogue with
Damascus, in that it would likely reduce Iran's regional influence, weaken the
threat from Hezbollah, improve Israel's relations with other Arab states, and
encourage more pragmatic Palestinian voices while weakening extremists. "The
moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle
says Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad,
"and we can begin renewing ties with other Arab states." Robert Malley,
former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs,
notes how "the mere sight of Israeli and Syrian official sitting side
by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular
opinion in is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state's right to exist,
and putting Syrian allies that oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward
As a result, the pressure from the Bush administration on Israel to reject
Syria's offer for negotiations and the Israeli government's willingness to give
in to such pressure has led to growing resentment in Israel. According to the
normally hawkish Maariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini, "We've always
said that our arms are extended in peace. That is, unless the Americans twist
them." The eminent Israeli novelist Amos Oz
asks, "Why should Israel suspend one of its paramount national interests
peace with its neighbors for the sake of the pleasantness or unpleasantness
of its relations with a foreign government?"
Debra DeLee, head of the liberal pro-Israel group Americans for Peace Now,
says that "it takes a lot of chutzpah to tell Israel not to even talk
about peace with its neighbor." She goes on to assert that it was "outrageous...for
the President to pressure Israel not to negotiate."
Putting Syria into a Trap
Ironically, the Syria Accountability Act, passed
by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress in 2003,
contains a provision prohibiting any U.S. assistance to Syria until the
U.S. president "determines that substantial progress has been made ...
in negotiations aimed at achieving a peace agreement between Israel and Syria."
Given the administration's repeated efforts to block such negotiations from
taking place in the first place, it obviously makes it difficult for Syria to
The primary motivation may be more sinister, however.
The Jerusalem Post
reported on July 30 that President Bush pushed Israel to expand the war
beyond Lebanon, with Israeli military officials "receiving indications
from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria."
In the early days of the fighting, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott
reportedly met with a very senior Israeli official to underscore Washington's
support for extending the war to Syria, but Israeli officials
described the idea as "nuts" and decided to limit their military
operations to Lebanon. Haaretz
noted that some in Washington were "disappointed by Israel's decision
not to attack Syria at the same time." Meyrav Wurmser, head of the Center
for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute and wife of the
principal Middle East advisor for Vice President Cheney, went further,
declaring that there was "a lot of anger" in Washington that
Israel did not attack Syria, which she argued would have served "U.S. objectives."
also hoped that an Israeli invasion of Lebanon might lead Syrian troops
to re-enter Lebanon to defend the country from the Israeli invasion, which could
then be used as an excuse to expand the war to Syria itself.
Not everyone in Israel supports attacking Syria on behalf of the United States.
As bad as the Assad regime may be, forcing its overthrow could result in a new
regime that is far worse. Following a forced departure of the Ba'athists who
have ruled for over 44 years, radical Sunni Islamists would be most likely poised
to take advantage of the inevitable chaos.
However, the Bush administration appears quite willing to continue its divide-and-rule
policies in the Middle East by preventing the resumption of talks that could
end hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It is yet another reminder
that the problem with U.S. policy is not that it is too "pro-Israel,"
but that it is anti-peace.