Slow Road To Damascus


There appeared to be a lot of smoke and mirrors but little if any progress this week in the latest effort by special Middle East envoy George Mitchell to restart Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

“The U.S. is clearly pursuing the relationship and giving [Syrian President Bashar] Assad every opportunity, but so far there is no indication that this is a priority for him,” observed Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
He said Assad’s real interest is in mending his relationship with Washington in order to secure the removal of economic sanctions. But although the White House announced Monday that the processing of permits to allow Syria to import high-tech equipment would be speeded up, economic sanctions enacted in 2004 are still in place. They were imposed in response to Syria’s funding of Hamas and Hezbollah and can be lifted only by Congress, Hoenlein pointed out.

In the meantime, he said, “Syria continues to help Hezbollah and Hamas and continues to get them modern weaponry that would not be possible without Syrian cooperation.”

In a conference call to the Conference of Presidents last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was prepared to negotiate peace with Syria “with no preconditions, not Israeli or Syrian preconditions.”

But he added that he had “serious doubts as to whether Syria is really committed to making peace with Israel, because it had forged a close alliance with Iran, it continues to arm Hezbollah, and continues to undermine Lebanon’s independence. And Damascus, the capital of Syria, continues to serve as a center for Palestinian terror groups.

“So I think that if Syria wanted to signal its approach to peace, it could obviously take tangible steps to show a different direction.”

Tom Dine, an adviser to the Israel Policy Forum who has been conducting back-channel talks with Syrian officials, pointed out that the Obama administration has also announced plans to return an American ambassador to Damascus. The ambassador was withdrawn in 2005 to protest Syria’s alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

“We’ve seen these gestures and actual moves on America’s part … [but] the major complaint of the Americans is that the Syrians want everything and don’t want to reciprocate,” he said.

Dine added that he does not foresee the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks for at least the next six months.

Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, pointed out that Mitchell’s visit to Damascus was his second in a little more than a month and that he met with Netanyahu two days later.

“There has been a lot of talk about understandings but nobody knows what that means,” he said. “I think it’s obvious that it is most important for Netanyahu and Assad to make their points directly to the American administration, but I don’t see any serious signs that they are ready to jump to the negotiating table.”

Meital noted that Assad has repeatedly asked to resume peace talks with Israel, picking up the talks where they left off in 2000 when Israel was willing to give up the Golan Heights. But he said that Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that his government is against a complete Israeli withdrawal. In addition, it would “insist that the Syrians give their commitment to cease their relationship with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. And what we are hearing from the Syrians is that these are preconditions that would make the start of negotiations impossible.”

But Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political consultant and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Internet dialogue, said he foresees a quick resumption of talks with the U.S. and mediator.
“The talks could be long and drawn out, but the regional strategic payoff makes it worth doing,” he said. “It would push Iran out of the Levant [its neighbors in the region].”

Hillel Frisch, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University, offered a similar opinion. He pointed out that there is an “innate tension between the Palestinians and Syrians, because both know that the more Israel gives up to the Syrians the less it would be willing to give the Palestinians” and vice versa.
“Mitchell’s trip to Syria was to tell them that the U.S. knows Syria is more important than the Palestinians — especially since their house is divided — and that the U.S. is willing to give priority to the Syrian track,” he said. “I think the Americans think they can disengage Syria from Iran through the return of the Golan Heights.”

“I think the Israeli-Syrian talks will start as back-channel discussions and become visible quickly because the U.S. wants to show movement,” Frisch added.

Eyal Zisser, director of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, said that “unless Syria stops playing such a negative role [in the region] … and remains on the State Department’s list as a state supporter of terrorism, there can be no improvement” in relations.

Zisser said there is no way Netanyahu could agree to a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights “unless Obama puts pressure on him like he did with the settlements. But I don’t know if the Americans would be willing to exert such pressure now.”

He noted that even if Netanyahu wanted to bow to such pressure, his coalition would be “unlikely” to let him.

In a position paper released last week, the Israel Policy Forum called on the Obama administration to “implement the road map on the Palestinian front and to pursue the Syrian channel simultaneously.”
But Yaacov Bar Siman Tov of Hebrew University’s Department of International Relations said he is “not sure” simultaneous talks are possible.

“I don’t see the urgency of the Israeli-Syrian track today … although in the past Israel has preferred the Syrian track,” he said.

“So much depends on Mitchell and Obama and which they see as the more urgent. And much depends on Syria’s behavior with Lebanon and its intervention with Iran and Iraq. But its border is quiet and the border with Lebanon is quiet, so there is no incentive” for talks.