JERUSALEM (JTA) – On May 21, the ground shook in the Middle East as two separate and significant conflicts suddenly and simultaneously headed in the right direction: toward peace.
Warring Lebanese factions meeting in Doha, Qatar, reached an agreement after 18 months of great tension, and Israel and Syria announced the relaunching of formal peace talks following eight years of near silence.
Many in the Middle East celebrated the news even as others looked on with cynicism and distrust. The following morning, new Israeli polls showed a clear majority of Israelis opposed to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, even in return for peace.
But there is room for optimism.
Rather than addictively clinging to the hopeless Palestinian track, Israeli leaders at last are choosing a more sensible opportunity – one that has been knocking at their doorstep for nearly four years.
Never has another Arab leader voiced his hope for peace and the end of his nation’s decades-long conflict with Israel as has President Bashar Assad. Over the past four years or so, not a month went by without the Syrian dictator giving public and private hints, through every possible channel, calling on Israel for peace.
The gradual return of the Golan Heights to Syria, under various propositions and arrangements that have been articulated in recent years, undoubtedly will bring the region to a new level of stability. This stability not only will prompt the rest of the Arab world to adopt peaceful ties with Israel almost immediately, but also will press the Palestinian people to reach a consensus about their own claims and demands on Israel.
Peace with Syria could be Israel’s most effective tool against Iran’s belligerency, with a newly created peaceful atmosphere in the region triggering renewed efforts to solve the crisis over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
What will an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement entail? First and foremost, the return to Syria of the entire Golan, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. But there are many details to work out.
The two sides will negotiate what constitutes “entire”: Will the border pass along the shores of Lake Kinneret 33 feet away or be placed 1,300 feet away, as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once proposed?
On the timetable issue, will Israel withdraw over a period of five years or 15, and what will happen in the interim period?
Israel and Syria will discuss military and security issues, including demilitarization, early-warning stations, cross-border activity, the passage of armaments to Hezbollah via Syria and more.
Creative solutions will be found on energy and access to water resources. Turkey and other third parties already have offered to cooperate.
No peace agreement between Israel and Syria can be forged without giving special attention to the Palestinian issue.
Israel and Syria will discuss the Palestinian right of return, particularly as it relates to the 400,000 or so Palestinian refugees living in Syria. Israel’s agreement with Syria will resolve the political and citizenship status of these refugees, as well as their ability to return to a future Palestine or instead choose financial compensation.
The agreement also will deal with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel will demand the dissolution of Syria’s contacts with these parties. Syria will have to compromise and swallow this bitter pill, but likely will agree only to change the nature of its military ties with these parties and not eliminate its political alliances.
Neither side will achieve everything it wants.
Israel and Syria share a long history of failures to reach peace, and both sides desperately want this renewed peace process to succeed.
Every day, the price of failure to reach an agreement grows ever more expensive. Israeli leaders know and understand this quite well, often when others do not. They know that failure may usher in a new regional conflict, possibly a catastrophic one, that surely will endanger Israel and Syria.
Neither nation wishes to endanger its people further and thus will find a way to reach an agreement.
Windows of opportunity in the Middle East tend to appear quite infrequently and last but just a short while. If we continue to miss them, we may well bring upon ourselves and our children another 60 years of misery.
Israel has proven its abilities and its courage in the battlefield. Now is the time to be courageous in making peace.
(Shai Ben-Zvi, an Internet entrepreneur, is a board member of the Israel-Syrian Peace Society. Alon Liel is its founder and a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.)