Advice on pursuing peace with Syria

If President-elect Obama is wise, he’ll forego peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians for pursuit of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, writes Aaron David Miller in the Washington Post. On the Palestinian-Israeli front, he writes,

No conflict-ending agreement is possible now, nor is one likely to be anytime soon, and the stakes are too high for America to harbor illusions that would almost certainly lead to yet another failure. The gaps separating the two sides on the core issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security) remain too wide, the current leaders are too weak to bridge them, and the environment on the ground is too complicated to allow for sustainable negotiations.

By contrast, he writes, the time is ripe for an Israeli-Syrian deal:

Here, there are two states at the table, rather than one state and a dysfunctional national movement. A quiet border, courtesy of Henry Kissinger’s 1974 disengagement diplomacy, prevails. And there are fewer settlers on the Golan Heights and no megaton issues such as the status of Jerusalem to blow up the talks. Indeed, the issues are straightforward — withdrawal, peace, security and water — and the gaps are clear and ready to be bridged.

Meanwhile, Itamar Rabinovich, who led Israel’s negotiations with Syria under the administration of the late Yitzhak Rabin, offers some advice to Israeli officials on the conduct of such negotiations: Keep your mouths shut! He writes in The Jerusalem Post:

Haaretz published earlier this week the gist of a document prepared in Israel’s defense establishment that advocates an Israeli-Syrian deal, even at a "painful price" (namely full withdrawal from the Golan heights that Syria insists on as a sine qua non). The authors of the document argue that a Syrian-Israeli agreement holds the key to dealing with the challenges presented to Israel by Iran and by Iran and Syria through Hizbullah in Lebanon. These gains justify, so they argue, the painful concession of withdrawing fully from the Golan…

This formula may or may not work if and when a full-fledged negotiation involving all three parties (the US, Israel and Syria) is launched in the early spring of 2009, after the Obama Administration is installed and a new Israeli government emerges from the February 10 election. But one thing is certain: With Syria, early public discussion of an idea to be raised in the negotiation is likely to undermine it…

A second lesson, hardly an earthshaking discovery, was that you must not appear too eager for the deal. This immediately raises the price. From this perspective, whoever leaked the document to Haaretz has weakened Israel’s hand in the negotiation with Syria.

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