Alon Ben-Meir: Israel’s Peace Offensive

Dr. Alon Ben-MeirIsrael’s recent peace offensive may have been motivated in part by personal or domestic politics, but the driving force to negotiate is part and parcel of a much larger plan. As the dynamics in the Middle East shift in response to Iraq war backlash, and as Iran develops its nuclear program, Israel has finally conceded that peace with Syria is the key to rapprochement with the rest of the Arab world, including the Palestinians. If comprehensive peace with Syria can be reached, Israel will be better poised to successfully negotiate with Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, and will be better equipped to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas—all which will become extremely important as Israel gears up to face Iran.

Israel has planed to engage Syria in peace talks for more than a year. I have been privy to some of the indirect talks between the two sides, and know first-hand that Israel would have commenced these talks much earlier had it not been for objections from the Bush administration.

Reports from Ankara

Both countries fully understand the requirements for a peace agreement: The entire Golan Heights in exchange for comprehensive peace with normal relations. Without establishing these requirements in advance, it is doubtful that the two nations would have entered into any negotiations—directly or indirectly.

Peace with Syria can also pave the way to an Israeli-Lebanese normalcy, specifically because Syria is embedded in Lebanon’s social, economic, and political makeup, and continues to exert tremendous influence over Hezbollah. Moreover, Syria can wield significant influence on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating front: More than any other Arab state, Syria provides sanctuary for Palestinian radical leaders and has influence over the political and financial support of Palestinian extremist groups. Syrian influence transcends the Arab-Israeli conflict because, as a predominantly Sunni state, it can shift the dynamic of the Shiite-Sunni conflict away from a dangerous escalation threatening to engulf the entire region.

Reports from Ankara about the Turkish peace mediation between Israel and Syria suggest that the two nations have made considerable progress, and that they will soon meet face-to-face. Seeing it in this light explains Israel’s various peace overtures towards Lebanon, as well as its willingness to negotiate a prisoners exchange with Hezbollah and accept a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.

The negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel—in connection with the exchange of prisoners and Israel’s willingness to relinquish Shebaa Farms to the UN or to Lebanon—were mutually pursued for different reasons. Hezbollah’s leaders fully understand that the closer the understanding between Israel and Syria, the less leverage Hezbollah will have in any future negotiations. Striking a deal with Israel now will allow them to take credit for recovering Lebanese territory, and hail their resistance of Israel as the key to their success. On the Israeli side, removing the reasons behind Hezbollah’s resistance will give Syria an even greater leverage over Hezbollah to bring about its disarmament in due course. Making a move at this time will, in particular, blunt any prospect of needing to deal with another hostile front should an attack on Iran becomes inevitable.

Without peace with Syria…

Accepting a ceasefire with Hamas has also its own calculus: Without peace with Syria, Israel would have most certainly opted for a major operation against Hamas’ forces in Gaza to put an end to the reign of terror. But since the negotiations with Syria are going well, a massive incursion into Gaza which would have claimed huge number of casualties on both sides has—for the time being—become unnecessary. Israel fully expects that Iran’s support of Hamas through Syria will eventually come to an end. This could alleviate much of Israel’s concern over the likelihood that Hamas will take advantage of the ceasefire to rearm, regroup, and be better prepared for the next round.

Meanwhile, a period of calm will allow peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to advance more rapidly, thereby strengthening the Palestinian moderate forces led by Mahmoud Abbas. This will also give Israel an opportunity to reduce some of its stringent security measures, remove many road blocks, release more Palestinian prisoners, and allow more Palestinian workers to seek employment in Israel. While this will certainly not solve the complex dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, it will show a concrete effort on Israel’s behalf to make concessions in the name of peace. Israel will then be in a better position to assist Mr. Abbas, directly and indirectly, in building his security forces without being accused of pitting one Palestinian faction against another.

Preventing a major conflagration

As was demonstrated by Israel’s major air exercise earlier this month, Iran’s overt threats on Israel’s existence are being taken at face value. And should Iran’s uranium enrichment program get to a point of immanent danger, Israel will need all the alliances it can get. Thus, in any peacemaking efforts in the region, Syria has proven to be the most strategic key in preventing all out war. Historically, Syria has demonstrated that once it commits itself to any agreement or understanding it usually fulfils its obligations. Should the current peace negotiations succeed, the Middle East geopolitical dynamic will experience an historical transformation, while preventing a major conflagration between Israel and Iran. Both Syria and Israel fully grasp the huge potential gain or loss should they succeed or fail.



Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU, and is the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute.

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