Syria and Iran do not interact with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the same way. While there could be both advantages and disadvantages for Israel in prospective American-Iranian talks, there is a slim but nevertheless intriguing possibility that talks with Syria, by both the US and Israel, could produce a variety of positive benefits for Israel. This is far less likely with Iran.
Because at the regional strategic level Israel appears to be headed on a collision course with both Syria and Iran, it behooves Jerusalem to exploit any opening for talks that might help avoid an open and devastating conflict. Equally important, talking to Syria could conceivably have far-reaching consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Broadly speaking, Iran's and Syria's self-appointed roles in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are to support the most extreme Palestinian movements that refuse to recognize Israel and reject a two-state solution. Iran, indeed, itself rejects a two-state solution, and calls for the elimination of Israel. But Syria does not, creating the impression that its support for Hamas has less to do with Islamist ideology than with Damascus' alliance with Tehran and its desire to hold a few trump cards for eventual negotiations with Israel.
In another striking contrast between the two, Syria calls openly for peace negotiations with Israel, whereas Iran refuses to have any political or diplomatic contact with Israel. In recent days the contrast has been particularly striking, with Iran hosting a Holocaust-denial conference while Syrian leaders entice Israel with offers of future joint ventures on the Golan.
Syria is the odd-man out in the web of influence that Iran is weaving all the way to the Mediterranean. The other members of the "Shi'ite crescent"--Iran itself, the new Iraqi ruling majority and Hizballah--are Shi'ite. Syria is a Sunni-majority country ruled primarily by the Alawites, who have a tenuous historic relationship with Shi'ite Islam.
Finally, Syria is weak militarily and economically and confronts problematic relationships on all of its borders: with Iraq (and the 140,000-strong US military force there), Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.
Taken together, these factors point to a number of possible advantages that Israel could now gain from successful negotiations with Syria--advantages that did not exist in the past.
During the 1990s, no fewer than four Israeli prime ministers (Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak) negotiated with Syria. They were prepared to give up more or less all of the Golan Heights in exchange for a cold peace that would presumably have involved a chance for peace with Lebanon and an ending of Syrian support for Hizballah and for the Palestinian "rejectionist" organizations that found shelter in Damascus. The latter, at the time, were relatively incapable of challenging Fateh's primacy on the Palestinian political scene, while the Iran-Syria link was considered a relatively manageable problem from Israel's standpoint. An added advantage of an Israeli-Syrian settlement was understood to be the weakening of the Palestinian negotiating position by virtue of the isolation engendered when Israel closed the circle of peace with all its Arab state neighbors.
Today, the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas link is far stronger and more dangerous than in the past. Successful negotiations with Syria would presumably yield not only a cold peace with Damascus, a chance for peace with Lebanon and isolation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but by severing the "Shi'ite crescent" link could also generate a radical weakening of Hamas in the Palestinian arena and at least partial removal of Iran from its current growing position of negative influence in the Levant.
In other words negotiating with Syria, as the Baker-Hamilton report suggests, could if successful produce a host of benefits for Israel in the Palestinian and other spheres that were not nearly as relevant during the 1990s. Note that this linkage--Syria first, then Palestine--is the reverse of that advocated indirectly by Baker-Hamilton and directly by so many Arab and many western actors, who insist that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to everything else in the region falling into place. It builds on the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in any case currently not ripe for a peace process.
Syria is aware of this enhanced payoff to a successful negotiating process with Israel (and with the US, which would seek Syrian commitments regarding Iraq and Lebanon). In view of the American debacle in Iraq and Israel's difficulties in fighting Hizballah this past summer, Damascus will undoubtedly drive a hard bargain. Indeed, there is no guarantee at all that the Assad regime with its mafia-like behavior and general lack of credibility is really a candidate for a viable agreement with Israel or the US.
But because the payoff for success is significant and the alternative to negotiating is liable to be escalation to open conflict, and because in the Palestinian sphere Syria and Iran appear increasingly to be major obstacles to positive movement--it's worth a try. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert's insistence that he has to line up on this issue with US President George W. Bush and reject negotiations is not persuasive. Most of Washington today disagrees with Bush. This is an issue that should be discussed seriously between friends.- Published 18/12/2006 © bitterlemons.org
One of the most prominent features of Palestinian politics after the election victory of Hamas is the return of the influence of regional forces on the internal Palestinian scene.
Such influence was one of the major problems in Palestinian politics until the departure of the PLO from Beirut and later its return to the Palestinian territories. Since then, regional influence waned in favor of growing influence of the Palestinian public on the politics of the different factions.
The election of Hamas with its regional and Islamic agenda opened the door to the influence of countries like Syria and Iran. In turn, this development is likely to bring other factions, especially Fateh, closer to rival countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and their ally, the US. In other words, competing Arab, regional and international forces have made their reentry into Palestinian politics.
The sharp increase not only in the rhetorical involvement of Iran in the Palestinian cause, but also its substantial financial support of Hamas and its government, is evidence of that new and dangerous development. Syria, which has been under growing American pressure, has in turn found in its relations and influence on Hamas yet another card to add to Iraq and Lebanon in maneuvering out from under this pressure.
The growing influence of the external Hamas leadership, which is based in Syria and financially supported by Iran, also complicated the internal Palestinian political scene and contributed to the deadlock in the internal dialogue. It is ironic and interesting that the main response to the initiative of President Mahmoud Abbas for early elections came from Damascus, where the opposition factions led by Hamas met. Only after that did Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reject Abbas' initiative. It is also interesting to note that the deputy prime minister presented a milder reaction to the initiative.
In general the regional agenda, which partially influences the political positions and behavior of Hamas, has contributed to the growing tensions and confrontations between Hamas and Fateh.
The unfortunate conclusion is that the Palestinian cause and Palestinian politics have been caught up in the regional and international polarization. This has been at the expense of a genuine Palestinian agenda and in contradiction to the desire and interest of the Palestinian public.
The idea of early elections, regardless of the motives behind it, might help bring back to the attention of Palestinian politicians and political parties--religious or nationalist--the priorities of the public and consequently reduce the influence of foreign, regional and international forces, in favor of the priorities of the people.
But there are also lessons for international powers. This new and complicated political situation is another example of the interaction of the different conflicts in the region. This realization is finally dawning in the centers of power in Washington and was articulated by US officials in the Baker-Hamilton report, which encouraged the US administration to deal more seriously with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in order to neutralize the radicalization process in the Arab world.- Published 18/12/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
A fateful opportunity
by Yossi Beilin
The Baker-Hamilton report reached a series of obvious conclusions. Everything is linked. The United States cannot remain in the Iraqi swamp much longer; nor can it abandon Iraq and leave it in its current chaotic state. In order to leave Iraq gradually there is a need for a pragmatic Arab coalition that assists the shaky Iraqi government. The cooperation of the pragmatic Arab states can be ensured if they can justify themselves in the eyes of their publics, and for this to happen the US must make a major effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Baker and Hamilton are the answer to six years of an American foreign policy march of folly, particularly in the Middle East. For President George W. Bush to accept their recommendations he must admit serious mistakes. Hence he almost certainly will not accept them unless American public opinion forces him to. Baker and Hamilton understand the extent of the damage caused by the American policy of boycott toward Syria, Hamas and other actors in our region and beyond. They are right to propose holding talks with those actors and trying to develop genuine dialogue with them. Personally, I doubt whether talks with Iran would bear fruit, but in contrast I believe that talks with Syria could contribute to a change in the regional map.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad proposes negotiations with Israel. The latter, for the second time in its history, has set preconditions (the first time was about two years ago, when then-PM Ariel Sharon turned down the Syrian offer). Assad is apparently doing so because his country's economic situation is becoming increasingly difficult--in four or five years its oil reserves will run out--and because Syria's talks with the European Union have been frozen and he feels isolated. Peace with Israel would offer him an opening to the world.
Assad holds "negative cards" in his hand: a war option with Israel, patronage of terrorist organizations' headquarters, and transfer of weapons from Iran to Hizballah. He won't forego those cards if we stick to our conditions for opening negotiations (particularly as long as our prime minister declares up front that as long as he's in office we won't give up the Golan). Yet there can be no doubt that he will have to give up those cards in order for negotiations to conclude successfully.
An Israeli-Syrian peace, which would of course comprise Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, would deprive the extremist Palestinian organizations of Syrian backing, just as it would neutralize Hizballah's power. And it would constitute a setback for the Syrian-Iranian alliance--a pact of convenience between two very different actors: Baathist secular Syria and Shi'ite Islamist Iran.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace signed by the government of Israel and the leadership of the PLO and backed by a Palestinian referendum, together with an Israeli-Syrian peace, would pave the way for Israel and Lebanon to make peace and facilitate realization of the Arab initiative, ushering in normalization of relations between all the Arab countries and Israel. This would leave Iran all alone facing an unprecedented coalition, and would render it very difficult for Tehran to pursue its current policies.
Granted, these are not easy steps. Yet I am convinced they are doable. It will not be easy to reach agreement with the Palestinians when Hamas is so significant and so opposed to peace. Nor will it be easy to persuade Israelis to concede the Golan Heights and the West Bank. But it is possible. The alternative is as obvious to us all as the Day of Judgment: the dangers for our region are far greater than the internal controversies over the extent of the price to be paid for peace.
The message of Baker-Hamilton is another opportunity to create an alliance of the sane against the lunatics of our region. The report's publication reverberated widely, yet this does not guarantee its implementation. Politicians in the US and the region can render it a mere passing event, just as they can cite it as justification for change. They bear a huge responsibility, one that in recent years they have not proven worthy of. Now they have a second chance. For the peoples of the region this is a fateful opportunity.- Published 18/12/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin is chair of the Meretz-Yahad party.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
End the policy of isolation
by Mousa Qous
With Palestinians on the brink of civil war, it has become impossible to separate this crisis from the overall situation in a region polarized by the United States into "moderate" Arab regimes versus the "axis of evil", which includes Iran and Syria.
The conflict between these two poles, which has manifested itself in the crises in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, is a result of the erroneous foreign policies of the Bush administration. After categorizing Iran and Syria as part of the "axis of evil" (along with North Korea), the US proceeded to boycott and diplomatically isolate these countries in the hope that by doing so they could somehow force them to moderate their positions.
But the result was just the opposite. Both Syria and Iran hardened their stances toward America and their influence in the region only increased. In the most recent Israeli war on Lebanon, both Israel and the US predicted the wrong outcome. Largely because of Iranian and Syrian support, Hizballah proved to be strong both on the battlefield and among the people, and the group ultimately foiled Israel's objectives in going into Lebanon in the first place.
But the US policy of isolation had already spilled over into the Palestinian arena. As just one more way of imposing his foreign policy in the Middle East, President George W. Bush called for a boycott of Hamas once the movement won democratic parliamentary elections last January. Thus, when Hamas formed a government at the end of March, the United States and Israel led the international community in isolating, rather than dealing with, the newly-elected Palestinian leaders.
The United States had been an active advocate of democratic elections during the rule of the late President Yasser Arafat, but when the time came the results proved not to be to America's liking. As a result, neither the US nor Israel allowed Hamas the opportunity to prove itself competent or otherwise in governing the Palestinians.
Instead, Hamas was squeezed diplomatically and financially, and with a tight economic siege on the Palestinian leadership. The movement was forced to turn elsewhere for support. Since the so-called "moderate" Arab governments followed America's lead and turned their backs on the newly formed government, the only support Hamas could find in the region came from Iran and Syria.
In addition, Hamas' election victory also led the Americans, Europeans and certain Arab countries to more actively support President Mahmoud Abbas in assuming greater authority over the security forces and the media--Palestine Radio and Television is under the direct supervision of the presidency--thus stripping a number of key authorities from the government.
With whatever international funding still coming to Palestinians being funneled through the presidency, the western powers and its regional allies only helped exacerbate an already escalating crisis between the presidency and the government.
Contrary to its purpose, however, this support did not always serve Abbas well. American and western support for the president in the form of training and financing his security forces in fact helped weaken Abbas' popularity on the street.
All of these factors led to a situation in which foreign actors had an undue influence on Palestinian politics. Whenever Palestinians came close to resolving significant issues, especially regarding the formation of a unity government or the formulation of a prisoner exchange deal, either Hamas or Abbas would pull the plug due to pressure from Iran or the United States.
As long as the United States does not change its policies toward Iran and Syria--that is open the lines of communication and break their diplomatic isolation as well as the isolation of Hamas--there can never be a solution to the Palestinian problem.
This also forms part of the recommendations issued in the Baker-Hamilton report, recommendations Bush still seems very hesitant to adopt.
Unlike Syria. In an interview with the Italian paper La Repubblica, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was ready and willing to reinitiate peace talks with Israel. He has yet to receive an answer, because Israel is waiting for its cue from the US. Washington continues to cling to its hard line toward Damascus.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has even gone so far as to offer to jumpstart peace talks with Israel without the precondition of returning the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres responded by saying that it would be a grave mistake for Israel to start negotiations with Syria as long as such a move would be in contradiction with Washington's policies.
If the United States truly wants to right the situation for itself and for the Middle East as it claims, it must abandon categorizing countries in the region as those belonging to an "axis of evil" and those that do not. It must also abandon its policy of isolation--of Iran, Syria and Hamas--and allow for the lines of communication to be opened.
America has tried a policy of boycott and isolation and it has failed repeatedly. Now is the time to try something new.
The ideal solution would be to hold an international conference and for the United States to allow the international community, particularly the European Union and Arab countries, to play a larger role in resolving the Palestine question (and the Iraq debacle).
The 2002 Saudi initiative, in which the Arab world offered full normalization with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all land occupied in 1967, provides a sound and solid foundation for a just and lasting peace in Palestine in particular and in the Middle East in general.- Published 18/12/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Mousa Qous is the Arabic media coordinator of Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy.
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