Opening the Door to Syria

By Ralph Seliger, editor of the Meretz USA quarterly magazine, ISRAEL HORIZONS, and editor of Meretz USA’s weblog at MeretzUSA.blogspot.com .

I’ve had this seemingly outlandish idea for over a month now, even before it was proposed in articles in Haaretz, Ynet and elsewhere by such leading Zionist doves as Yossi Beilin and Gershon Baskin: The one silver lining to the Lebanon war, and the best solution for Israeli security, is the renewed possibility of a peace treaty with Syria.

We should recall that Israel and Syria came close to a peace agreement two or three times in the 1990s, with the most recent failure being the breakdown of negotiations between Ehud Barak and the elder President Assad over a sliver of a few meters one way or the other at the eastern edge of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).  This was the great failing that led to the unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon and its transformation into a bastion for Hezbollah aggression. Yet, later entreaties from the younger Assad for new negotiations were ignored by Prime Minister Sharon.

On July 20th, Meretz USA hosted a frequent visitor to its Manhattan headquarters, Meretz MK Avshalom (Abu) Vilan. Abu hinted at leverage on Syria in that as many as one million Syrians have been working in Lebanon’s vibrant pre-war economy; remittances to their families have been a valuable subsidy for the stagnant Syrian economy.

There is enormous strategic value for both Israel and the United States to an agreement with Syria.  Israel would require an end to Syria’s role as a conduit for arms (including missiles) and money – mostly from Iran – to Hezbollah and a cutoff of all sanctuary and supply for such other violent forces as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The United States could demand an effective sealing of Syria’s borders against further infiltration by foreign jihadis into Iraq.

Importantly, Syria would be peeled away from its deadly embrace with Iran, an unnatural alliance not truly reflecting Syria’s interest or its cultural reality. Syria is mostly Sunni, Arab and secular, whereas Iran’s regime is Shiite, Persian and theocratic.
In return, Syria would benefit from an end to the threat of military attack from Israel, the US or both. And the prospect of a new peace descending upon Lebanon, would again trigger a strengthened economy for that resourceful nation, benefiting Syria anew with jobs for Syrian workers. But such an agreement would require of the United States a sustained diplomatic engagement with the Israeli-Arab conflict that has not characterized the current Bush administration to date.

Previous peace talks have been brokered and even hosted by the United States. It is hard to envision a new effort that is not similarly shepherded by the US, but first the Bush administration must reject hardline American voices that advocate an unstintingly hostile stance toward Syria.

Israel’s cost for a breakthrough with Syria would be steep and obvious – the loss of the Golan Heights. But even in this, I would suggest a counter-offer that, however unlikely to be accepted by Syria, would be of mutual benefit to both countries: Israel should acknowledge Syrian sovereignty and then advance two options short of abandoning the territory outright; one would be a long-term leasing arrangement, say 50 or 99 years, with the Golan becoming a small Middle Eastern Hong Kong. The other would be to offer a return to Syrian sovereignty but negotiating to find another way for Israelis and their commercial enterprises to remain, perhaps dangling the prospect of jobs for Syrian laborers and partnerships for Syrian business people.  

As has been widely noted, the approximately 15-20,000 Israelis who have made the Golan their home are not the uncompromising hardliners who constitute a prominent element of the West Bank settler population. For example, the Golan is the only area beyond the pre-1967 Green Line in which members of the left-wing and very dovish Kibbutz Artzi or National Kibbutz Federation (now merging with the United Kibbutz Movement) established new kibbutzim. Although these kibbutzniks have from the outset declared a willingness to leave their homes in return for a real peace with Syria, peace would only be strengthened if Israelis and their businesses were allowed to remain.

It is not clear that many would choose to remain under any form of Syrian rule, but this concrete fact of Israeli-Syrian co- existence would greatly improve the new post-war climate and provide a significant boost to the stagnant Syrian economy. There is no inherent reason why the highly successful Golan Heights Winery, or the ski resort at Mt. Hermon and the other enterprises of 24 factories and 28 kibbutzim and moshavim, could not benefit both Israelis and Syrians. Syria could derive benefit through taxation, rent payments (if the territory is leased), and through a spate of employment and investment opportunities for its people. And the region as a whole would fruitfully observe a new model of cooperation, for a change, between Arabs and Jews.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Israel, Lebanon, Middle East Peace, Syria, U.S. Role

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