Realignment In The Making?


In endorsing Tuesday the Israeli-Palestinian peace process begun by the United States, the United Nations Security Council also adopted its three core principles: mutual recognition, the end to violence and a two-state solution built upon previous agreements.

“Israel welcomes all the support we receive from the international community and moderate nations in the region regarding the peace process,” Israeli UN Ambassador Gabriela Shalev told reporters. “But we want to remind everybody that all negotiations are bilateral.”

The UN resolution is seen as a further rebuke of Hamas by the international community because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel or previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

Shalev, in her first press conference since taking office three months ago, said also that she hoped the decision of Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas this week to hold Palestinian presidential and legislative elections in April would not cause a postponement of the peace talks.

“In spite of the election in Israel [Feb. 10], we are committed to the peace process,” Shalev said.
In her meeting with reporters, arranged by the non-profit Israel Project, which provides resources for international journalists while promoting peace in Israel, Shalev said Israel was working “slowly, painfully” towards a peace agreement with Syria. But she pointed out that for some Israelis Syria’s demand that Israel return the Golan Heights captured in the Six Day War in 1967 “will not be so easy.”

“We know that Syria is rearming Hezbollah” in violation of United Nations Resolution 1701, she explained.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said this week that peace with Syria would require Syria to stop “arms smuggling through Syria to Hezbollah, [end] their strong ties to Iran and their endless support of terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”

There were media reports this week that Syrian President Bashar Assad had drafted a document specifying the precise amount of land he wanted Israel to return. Assad, as he has done in the past, asked that Israel respond to his territorial claim before resuming negotiations.

Indirect Israeli-Syrian talks using Turkey as an intermediary began in April. They were suspended in September when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to resign amid a corruption scandal, and it appears unlikely they will resume until after the Israeli election.

But one thing may be different when they do resume — the United States may be at the table, according to Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former chief Syrian negotiator.

Speaking at a dinner meeting of the Israel Policy Forum earlier this month, Rabinovich recalled that prior Israeli-Syrian talks in the 1990s and in 2000 had included the U.S. But the Bush administration backed out because of Syria’s support of terrorist groups. It is believed that President-elect Barack Obama will re-engage Syria once he takes office, Rabinovich said.

He added that he believed that once talks begin, they could be concluded more quickly than the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

“It’s a simpler agreement,” he said. “It’s a conflict between two states. It’s territorial, not existential. In Damascus, there is an authoritative regime. Assad has the power and authority and will to make a deal.”
Assad agreed to indirect talks with Israel without an American presence because it did not like the political isolation the Bush administration had imposed, Rabinovich noted.

Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University in Washington and the son of one of Syria’s former negotiators with Israel, told the audience that he too believes an opportunity exists to achieve Israeli-Syrian peace. And a return of the Golan Heights is the key, he said.
“A total peace means a total withdrawal,” he said. “To Syria, peace means normal relations with all that implies — diplomatic relations, free flow of people, goods, services, and trade across the borders. …The Golan is far easier to resolve than a Palestinian-Israeli peace.

“The good news is that peace between Syria and Israel doesn’t just mean peace between Syria and Israel. … If Syria is to recognize Israel, it’s going to bring with it a lot of other Arab countries. The ramifications for the region are huge. There could be a realignment.”

Asked whether Assad was strong enough to comply with Israel’s demand that it move out of Iran’s orbit and stop its support of terrorist groups, Jouejati said flatly: “Bashar is in total control of his agenda. I think he’s in total control of the army and intelligence apparatus.”