Will Annapolis Spur Progress on Syrian, Saudi Peace Tracks?

While the Annapolis conference was meant to focus on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the attendance of Syria and Saudi Arabia has raised questions about the prospects for peace between Israel and the wider Arab world.

Syria came up because, contrary to expectations, Damascus sent a delegate to Annapolis to talk about trading peace for the Golan Heights. And the attendance at Annapolis of all 22 Arab League member countries, led by the influential Saudis, suggested that normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world could be in the cards.

Israeli experts are divided over the prospects of reaching peace with Syria.

Some insist Damascus will never break with its Shi’ite sponsors in Tehran, which is a key condition for progress. Others argue there is a greater chance of achieving peace with the Syrians than with the Palestinians.

As for accommodation with the Arab world, the broad consensus is that peace with the Palestinians must come first.

Nevertheless, the fact that both the Syrians and Saudis came to Annapolis — Syria sent Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad and Saudi Arabia sent Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal — had immediate ramifications in the Middle East.

Their attendance demonstrated America’s ability to mobilize Arab moderates and underscored the growing isolation of Iran and its radical allies.

Whether or not Annapolis brings progress or not, already it is causing considerable alarm in Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made angry phone calls to Assad and Saudi King Abdullah urging them not to cooperate with the United States and Israel against Iran.

Iranian state media outlets were more blunt, warning that any Arab country that provides logistic help for a U.S. strike against Iran will be a legitimate target for Iranian retaliation.

Saudi policy has been driven for some time by the Iranian threat. The Saudis, who are Sunni Muslims, are terrified at the prospect of an Iranian move against their oil reserves or Iranian-sponsored terrorism destabilizing their kingdom. However, that does not mean the Saudis will push for wholesale normalization of ties with Israel, the regional counterpoint to Shi’ite-ruled Iran.

For the past several years, the Saudis have been key players in regional diplomacy. They fashioned the peace initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002, a rough outline that proposed normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a full Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 borders.

The Saudis also mediated the now defunct power-sharing agreement in February between the moderate Palestinian Fatah faction headed by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas and the radical Hamas group.

But in both these cases, the Saudis’ aim was to help create Arab consensus and enhance ties with the United States as hedges against Iranian aggression, not to move toward normalization with Israel, says Saudi expert Joseph Kostiner of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

“Although the Saudis have a shared interest with Israel in curbing Iranian power, any contacts the two countries have on this will remain secret, precisely because the Saudis won’t jump the gun on normalization,” Kostiner told JTA.

Until Annapolis, only secret talks were held.

In September 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met covertly in Jordan with Saudi Arabia’s national security chief, Prince Bandar, presumably to discuss the Iranian threat. This encounter reportedly was followed by a string of lower-level secret contacts.

But there has been no sign of normalization.

On the contrary, in the run-up to Annapolis, al-Faisal declared there would not be so much as a handshake with Israeli leaders at the conference — so as not to give the Israelis “free normalization.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni argues for linkage between progress on the Palestinian front and normalization with the Arab world. In other words, every concession Israel makes to the Palestinians should be followed with an Arab gesture of normalization toward Israel.

This, she argues, would give Israel added incentive to move ahead.

But the Saudi message at Annapolis was clear: Normalization would not be an engine to drive the Israeli-Palestinian process. On the contrary, only the resolution of the core conflict would create conditions for normalization.

Still, there have been tacit understandings between Israel and the Saudis. For example, Israel raised no official objections to the U.S. plan to supply the Saudis with $20 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry over the coming decade. This was predicated on the understanding that the weapons were necessary for deterring Iranian aggression.

While no overt Israeli-Saudi contacts have been made, Israel and Syria have been engaged in a public on-again, off-again peace process since the early 1990s.

Four Israeli prime ministers — Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak — made serious efforts to make peace with Syria.

Over the past few years, Syrian President Bashar Assad has made repeated peace overtures, but he has been unwilling to commit himself to a break with Iran and its terrorist proxies.

Olmert, for his part, has not taken Assad’s overtures seriously, partly because the Bush administration made clear it was not interested in making overtures to a Syrian regime it considers hostile to its regional goals, analysts say.

In early September, however, a new element entered the Israel-Syria equation: the apparent bombing by Israel of a suspected nuclear weapons facility in the Syria desert.

Since then, Israeli intelligence experts say Assad has shown newfound interest in accommodation and moderation.

Now both Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are insisting it is time to explore seriously peace prospects with Syria. Most pundits believe the outcome will depend on whether the United States is prepared to promise Assad significant diplomatic and economic guarantees if he breaks with Iran.

So far, the Bush administration has offered no sign it is ready to make that promise.

Russia, however, reportedly is planning a follow-up to Annapolis in Moscow, where the main focus would be the Israel-Syria track.

Some Israeli analysts dismiss this as Russian jockeying for position on the international stage. Others argue it creates an opportunity that should not be dismissed peremptorily.

“You have a better chance of success [with the Syrians] than with the Palestinians because you are dealing with a viable regime, albeit a repugnant one,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad analyst and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site Bitterlemons.org. “And the payoff with regard to Iran is so much bigger.

“I am not sure if the Russians have some sort of division of labor with the Americans. But from what I know of the Syrians, they want the Americans in the room, not the Russians,” he told JTA.

Annapolis seems to have boosted as many as four separate tracks: Palestinian, Syrian, normalization and creation of a moderate front against Iran.

For the United States, the united front against Iran is key. Some argue that it was the object of the whole exercise.

That raises this question: If the moderate alliance against Iran is so important, will the United States press Israel to make concessions to strengthen that alliance?

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