Admittedly, Israel was never too friendly to the idea of a simultaneous peace with all its enemies, if only because of the politically unbearable cost of concessions on all fronts at the same time. The Israeli strategy of peacemaking therefore oscillated throughout between two different visions, that of the Left that gave priority to the Palestinian problem, and that of the Right that relegated it in favour of a settlement with the big Arab powers.
The current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the American veto on negotiations with Syria indicate that we are back to the Palestine First concept. But the prospects of success are desperately dim. With the American sponsor of the talks still refraining from engaging in a Clinton-like level of committed mediation, the parties would simply be incapable of meeting each other’s minimal requirements for a settlement.
Their failure would have dire consequences for the entire region. The axis Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbullah would be emboldened in its challenge to the American way in the region, and, with President Abbas humbled and defeated, a third Intifada would not be a far-fetched scenario. Taking Syria, an ally of Iran and the patron of spoilers such as Hamas and Hizbullah, out of the war equation is therefore of vital importance.
Both Israel and America need to change course with regard to Syria. Damascus has a keen interest in being invited into an American-led settlement with Israel. Syria is indeed part and parcel of the axis of evil, and the muted response of the Arab states to Israel’s mysterious air raid on its soil reflects its isolation within the Arab family as well, an isolation the Syrians are extremely uncomfortable with.
The Baath regime in Damascus is marked by two major formative experiences: the loss to Israel of the Golan Heights by Hafez al- Assad, and of Lebanon by his son Bashar. Recovering the Golan, having Syria’s special interests recognized in Lebanon, and reconciling his ailing country with America are therefore vital objectives for the regime and the best way that Bashar Assad has to boost his legitimacy at home. Nor are Syria’s readmission into the Arab consensus and the financial support she would certainly get from the Gulf monarchies for abandoning the Shiite alliance insignificant gains. Bashar might lack his father’s acumen, but just like him he knows a simple truth: peace with Israel is the price to pay.
Not too late for US to restart peace process
The question remains whether he understands that peace is not only about the restitution of the Golan, but also about the kind of normalization of relations with Israel that his father was reluctant to allow. The old Assad feared that a peace of open borders and the end of the politics of conflict might end up eroding his one party system. Peace entails a degree of political and socioeconomic change that is bound to diminish the appetite for military adventurism.
A Damascene conversion is perfectly possible and indeed vital for regional peace. Driving a wedge between Syria and Iran, drying up Hizbullah by cutting its lines of arms supply, allowing the vital task of stabilizing Lebanon to succeed, and forestalling what now looks as a most realistic scenario of a triple front war of Israel against Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah are the strategic fruits concomitant to a Syrian-Israeli peace
The only way to extricate Syria from the fatal Iranian embrace is by drawing it into a regional peace scheme. Alas, precisely because of their isolation and the paranoiac nature of the Baath regime the Syrians are not likely to abandon, as the US expects them to do, their current rogue alliances and their marriage with terror as a pre-condition for peace talks. A Damascene conversion would be the outcome of negotiations, not a prerequisite for them.
The idea that the Arab-Israeli peace process is about opting between a Syrian and a Palestinian track has proved to be a dangerous fallacy. Neither the Palestinians nor the Syrians would acquiesce with their exclusion. A revolutionary force in international relations is one whose level of dissatisfaction with the status-quo is such that it would work to undermine it at any price for the regional order.
It is not too late yet for the US to restart the peace process as a regionally inclusive enterprise by inviting Syria to the November peace conference. In addition to reviewing the state of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the conference should be the launching platform for an Israeli-Syrian track and the forum where clear rules of conduct and engagement would be agreed by all. The conference would not mark the end of the Damascus-Tehran axis, but if the US is ready to exercise a different brand of statesmanship than the one that has so far put it on the defensive on almost every front, it could certainly start the process of its dissolution.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy”