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A Tale of Two Cities: Istanbul and Sharm al-Sheikh

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s May 21 announcement that Israel and Syria will soon begin indirect negotiations in Istanbul, mediated by the Turkish government, should not have surprised anyone.  As Olmert told the Israeli daily Ha-Aretz (May 22, 2008), “exchanges [with Syria] have been ongoing for a long time.”  What seems to have changed is the degree of opposition of the Bush administration to open Israeli-Syrian talks or Israel’s willingness to flout Washington’s objections.  Olmert is under heavy pressure to resign as he is now under investigation for potential bribery charges for the fourth time.  He may believe that announcing a significant diplomatic initiative would boost his public standing.

After several rounds of Israeli-Syrian negotiations in the 1990s, a summit meeting between President Clinton and late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Geneva in March 2000 broke down over territorial issues.  The Syrian president died in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son Hafez.  In 2004, when President al-Assad the younger felt his rule was stabilized, Syria resumed contacts with Israel.

Last month al-Assad told the Qatari daily al-Watan that Turkey had been mediating contacts between Syria and Israel for a year (The Guardian, April 24, 2008).  However, he added, there would be no direct negotiations with Israel until a new US president takes office.  Assad wants the US to sponsor direct Syrian-Israeli talks.  But the Bush administration, he said, “does not have the vision or will for the peace process.  It does not have anything.”

From Syria’s point of view, the negotiations are about two different topics which they would like to link together.  Their apparent substance, a land-for-peace agreement in which Israel would return Golan Heights, occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in exchange for a peace treaty, is the less important one.  Syria claims — on the basis of understandings expressed in a “non-paper” (off the record, diplo-speak for “we can deny it if we choose to”) of the US State Department in August 1993 and again in negotiations in late 1995 — that Israeli Prime Ministers Rabin and Shimon Peres agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as the basis of a peace agreement with Syria.  Israel claims no such understanding exists because Syria did not commit to fully normalized relations with Israel in exchange. 

Israeli officials denied that talks would resume on the basis of an understanding that Israel would evacuate the Golan Heights.  But the same day as Prime Minister Olmert’s announcement, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that Israel did agree to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 line (the pre-1967 war border).  Muallem reiterated the Syrian view that this was consistent with commitments made by Rabin and all his successors, including über-hawk and Likud Party leader Benyamin Netanyahu, who conducted 18 months of secret negotiations with Syria in 1997-98 during his tenure as prime minister.

Netanyahu, the most likely candidate to become prime minister in the next elections according to Israeli public opinion polls, nonetheless attacked the resumption of negotiations as a ploy to draw attention away from Olmert’s legal difficulties. 

Olmert knows that neither a majority of the Israeli public nor the Knesset favor a deal with Syria.  According to a poll of a representative sample of adult Israelis by the Panel Institute conducted after Olmert’s announcement of negotiations with Syria, 70 percent of all Israelis oppose “giving up the Golan within the framework of a full peace agreement with Syria.”  Another recent poll by the Maagar Mochot think tank indicated that the Golan Heights, even more so than East Jerusalem, was the territory Israelis were least willing to part with: 68 percent of those surveyed want to maintain the status quo in both the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

From Syria’s point of view the second, more important, objective in negotiating with Israel is to improve relations with the United States.  Itamar Rabinovich is a Middle East historian who has served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, President of Tel Aviv University, Director of its Dayan Center for Middle East Studies, and an Israeli negotiator in previous talks with Syria.  Rabinovich believes Syria “is not as interested in making peace with Israel as it is in making peace with Washington” (Ha-Aretz, May 22, 2008).  But he nonetheless supports the negotiations and has advocated them for several years.

Bashar al-Assad made significant contributions to the Bush administration’s global “war on terror.”  He hoped that this would convince the US to remove it from its second-tier membership in the “axis of evil,” open economic relations, encourage Israel to evacuate the Golan Heights, and acquiesce to Syria’s “special role” in Lebanon.  The 2006 Iraq Study Group Report, which the Bush administration ignored, argued that the US should engage with Syria.  This would provide an opportunity to distance Syria from its current ally, Iran, which both Washington and Tel Aviv consider a much more significant threat, and to press Syria to encourage its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, to adopt more moderate behavior.

Many Israeli officials believe there is a better chance of reaching an agreement with Syria than with the Palestinians.  Because al-Assad is fully in control of his country, he can ensure that any agreement would be implemented.  The Syrian-Israeli dispute is purely territorial and does not involve emotion-laden issues like Jerusalem and the “right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.”  Moreover, Israeli governments have always seen negotiations and agreements with Arab states as a way to weaken and isolate the Palestinians and eventually force them to accept Israel’s terms.  That was Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s strategy when he was Prime Minister in 1999-2000.  He supports negotiating with Syria now for the same reason.

Bush administration officials have been cool about the Israeli-Syrian track.  They may even view it as “negotiating with terrorists” and a form of appeasement comparable to Munich.  The president invoked this analogy in his speech to the Israeli Knesset on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary, a comment widely understood as criticizing Barack Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said only that the US “is not opposed to Israel and Syria talking peace.”  She believes (or is required to say publicly) that the Palestinian-Israeli track “is now well along in the bilateral negotiations and we have an opportunity to get an agreement by the end of the year” (Ha-Aretz, May 22, 2008).

Any real progress toward such an agreement would have been welcome news for the Arab participants at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, which convened on May 18.  Strained US-Arab relations were exceptionally public at Sharm al-Sheikh, “the city of peace.”  Arab leaders were angered and embarrassed by President Bush’s gushing praise for Israel in his Knesset speech only days earlier.  Bush urged Israeli leaders to “make the hard choices necessary” to achieve peace but mentioned no concrete measures that should be taken.  Nor did he note the dire straits of the Palestinian people or visit the Palestinian territories.  Bush’s only reference to the Palestinians was his prophecy that when Israel marked its 120th it would be living next to an independent Palestinian state (many Israelis would disagree with him; it is becoming increasingly common for Israelis to assert that Israel will not survive for another 60 years).

President Bush and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak did not attend each other’s speeches at Sharm al-Sheikh.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters, “In principle, the Bush speech at the Knesset angered us, and we were not happy with it.”  MK Yossi Beilin‘s office announced that Abbas had told Beilin that he would resign if there was no substantial progress in peace talks over the next six months. 

These developments suggest the following possible scenario: A Democratic administration will come into office in January 2009 and implement a Middle East policy roughly based on the Iraq Study Group report: a phased withdrawal from Iraq and diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran.  A Syrian-Israeli peace blessed by the United States could result from such a policy.  These developments could substantially reduce tensions in the Middle East.  Under such circumstances an exceptionally bold and principled president might actively embrace the global consensus that undoing the damage the Bush administration has wrought on the Middle East and on the United States requires ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

Joel Beinin
Cairo, May 23, 2008


Joel Beinin is currently Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo while he is on temporary leave from his position as History Professor at Stanford University.  Beinin is also a past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.  This article first appeared on the Web site of Jewish Voice for Peace.



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