Clinton Courts Syria, but Will Israel Play Ball?

For a disputed border crossing between two warring nations, the snowy hillside town of Majdal Shams is pretty quiet. There have been no major battles in the Golan Heights since the 1973 October War, when the Syrian army nearly recaptured the town from Israel, which had occupied the territory in the 1967 war. Instead of hostile fire, all that passes across the border these days are apple harvests and the occasional bride. Every few years, a Druze Arab woman passes through a United Nations checkpoint, leaving the Israeli-occupied Golan for the arms of her future husband in Syria, unlikely to ever again see her family until there is peace in the Middle East. If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handshake with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem at a conference in Egypt on Monday was any portent, that day may come sooner rather than later.

For more than two years, calls for peace by Syria’s President Bashar Assad had been ignored by the Bush Administration because of Syria’s support for militants in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and — the U.S. alleged — Iraq. Hoping that isolation would change Syrian behavior, Washington encouraged Israel to ignore the Syrian charm offensive. But since the Obama Administration took office with the intention of repairing America’s frayed relations in the region, the much discussed — but rarely traveled — road to Damascus has suddenly been busy with American emissaries, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who visited Syria last month. The flurry of diplomatic excitement caused by Clinton’s public handshake with Moallem, followed by Tuesday’s announcement that Washington will soon send two high-level envoys to Damascus for talks, is both a welcome sign of thaw and a reminder of how little common ground currently exists between the two countries.

After 60 years of Syrian-Israeli conflict, the contours of a solution are generally clear: Israel would have to withdraw from the Golan Heights, while Syria would have to maintain a demilitarized zone in the territory. Previous rounds of talks faltered over the exact route of the border and concerns over how Israel could protect itself from a surprise Syrian attack — calculations now rendered moot by modern satellite surveillance technology and the capabilities of Israel’s arsenal.

One major difficulty in thawing relations is that militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas, backed by Syria (and Iran), have grown into significant threats to Israel. And then there’s the matter of Syria’s alliance with Iran, which gives Damascus strategic depth. Moreover, some Israeli and U.S. analysts say, the state of war with Israel has helped justify the repressive security state that keeps Assad in power. But the Obama people seem to believe they can bring Syria in from the cold, possibly in exchange for a full package of aid and first-class membership in the country club of international diplomacy. And if that could be achieved, of course, it would deprive Iran of one of its most important allies in its confrontation with the West.

Easier said than done, however, because the only basis for bringing Syria into the U.S.-led camp is a peace agreement with Israel, and the Israeli public and leaders appear to be in no mood to give up the Golan Heights. The “land for peace” paradigm of the Oslo accords has long fallen into disrepute in Israel, where skeptics point out that Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 only to face rocket fire from Hamas and Hizballah. After the failure of major Israeli military operations — the 2006 war in Lebanon and this year’s Gaza incursion — to reverse the rising power of these groups, the Israeli electorate has swung to the right, choosing more hawkish leaders in the recent election. Aides to Israel’s Prime Minister–designate, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, are currently floating a proposal for a partial withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace, a proposal that is likely to be met with derision in Damascus.

Still, Israel’s security chiefs have been pushing its political leaders toward the negotiating table. They recognize that Syria is the one hostile party on the Arab side of the peace process that could possibly keep its end of a bargain and prevent the Golan from being turned into a rocket-launching pad into Israel. There will also never be anyone better in Syria for Israel to deal with than the secular Assad government. Syria may only get weaker as time passes: its economy is in bad shape; it has a history of problems with Islamist insurgent groups; and it faces a multiyear U.N. tribunal investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri that could reach high into the Syrian government. The Syrians accuse the tribunal of being a political tool of American and Israeli interests, but it may still make them willing to cut a deal.

But if Israel balks at negotiating peace based on withdrawal from the Golan, there could very well be another war on its northern border. Unable to get what it needs by talking, Syria might be tempted to roll the dice and see what it can achieve by fighting. If so, it would be betting that just as the Jewish state wound up with egg on its face after wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, Israel’s political position would be further weakened by another war, even if the Syrian military is no match for Israel’s in a head-to-head clash. No doubt Syrian generals have been studying Hamas’ and Hizballah’s tactics very carefully and watching as the snow melts in Majdal Shams.

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