Syria can wait

Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, has made several overtures toward Israel in the attempt to renew peace talks. The primary reason for the Syrian moves is fear. With the reelection of President Bush in the United States, continuity in American policies toward the Middle East is to be expected. This means continuous pressure on Syria to get out of Lebanon, stop helping the insurgency against the Americans in Iraq, rein in Hizballah and desist from rendering assistance to the Palestinian terrorist organizations whose headquarters are in Damascus.

Syria entertains serious fears that the US might unleash Israel to punish Syrian misbehavior. Moreover, Syria takes seriously the democratization rhetoric coming from Washington, which is perceived correctly as inimical to the continuity of the Syrian dictatorship. Syria hopes that, as in the past, peace talks with Israel can be used as a shield against US pressure.

Israel has no reason whatsoever to make it easier for the Syrian dictatorship to extricate itself from a difficult international constellation. It is quite clear that the current American administration is not well disposed toward Syria and is hardly enthusiastic about the prospects of Israeli-Syrian peace talks, precisely because it fully understands the motivation behind the peace overtures coming from Damascus.

Should Israel follow the American line or attempt to reach a deal with Syria? There are compelling moral, strategic and political reasons to refuse to tango with Damascus.

Nowadays, the expectations of the international community for a deal between Israel and an Arab state are based on the formula "land for peace," which links withdrawal from the strategic plateau of the Golan Heights to any peace agreement. This is morally repugnant because it implies that the aggressor of 1967, Syria, will get away without paying any price for its flagrant violation of international norms. Moreover, this formula is morally misguided because it requires not only evacuation of territory, but also removal of Jews from their homes, basically agreeing to the Arabs’ demand that their states have to be free of Jews. The Arabs’ refusal to accept even a miniscule Jewish minority within their midst in the framework of a peace agreement constitutes blatant racism. The current understanding of the "land for peace" formula is therefore morally bankrupt.

Strategically, the withdrawal from the Golan Heights is extremely problematic. Israeli control of the Golan Heights conveys several important advantages that were crucial in repelling the Syrian military onslaught in October 1973 and in maintaining stability along the Israeli-Syrian border since. The current border along the hills in the eastern part of the plateau is the best defense line against a conventional military attack. Israeli control of the Mt. Hermon peak in the north of the Golan enables Israel to project electronic surveillance deep into Syrian territory, providing Israel with early-warning capacity of an impending attack. The proximity of the Golan to Damascus (about 60 kilometers) has tremendous deterrent value because it puts the capital, the command center of the Syrian regime, within easy reach of Israeli military might.

The simplistic slogans about the decreasing value of territory and topographical assets ignore the fact that in historic terms military technology has continuously fluctuated, occasionally favoring defensive postures or offensive initiatives. Moreover, the stabilizing effect of the demilitarization arrangements in the Sinai (200 kilometers wide) cannot be emulated in the 24 kilometer-wide Golan. The design of Israel’s border should not be hostage to the ephemeral status of current technologies. Israeli control over the Golan Heights has provided a quiet border and any change might have destabilizing effects.

Politically, it is unwise for the current Israeli government to enter into negotiations with Damascus. The Syrians can hardly offer more than the "cold peace" delivered by Egypt. Relations with Syria will not serve as an entry card to the rest of the Arab world, which is gradually entering into varying types of peaceful interactions with Jerusalem. Actually Syria, as well as the rest of Arab world, have very little to offer to Israel in economic or cultural terms. Israel has no interest in integrating into a despotic, corrupt and poor region. Therefore, the price Damascus demands of Jerusalem for a peace treaty is too high.

As noted, an additional price for an Israeli positive response to the Syrian feelers might be American displeasure. As the US is Israel’s main ally and the sole superpower, the chances of signing an Israeli-Syrian document are not worth the risks of US-Israeli tensions. Moreover domestic politics, which revolve around the Palestinian issue, primarily disengagement from the Gaza Strip, indicate caution on the Syrian track. An Israeli government engaged in withdrawing from Gaza and evacuating Jewish settlers cannot afford to open a new domestic front, particularly since the majority of Israelis oppose full withdrawal from the Golan. The Israeli political system is burdened enough with several challenges and can hardly cope with additional pressures emanating from negotiations with Syria.

Finally, Israeli policies toward Syria should be guided by the Turkish precedent. Despite Syrian demands, Turkey refuses to hand over the Hatay province that was transferred by French-ruled Syria to Turkey in 1938. This territorial dispute has not prevented Damascus from having diplomatic relations with Ankara. Similarly, the territorial dispute between Israel and Syria should not serve as a pretext for refraining from recognizing Israel and having diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.