Syria Must Be a Top Priority

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. 12.02.2010

Recently Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman caused yet another blunder for Israel's foreign image in a series of hawkish comments and threats toward Syria. Following the diplomatic breech with Turkey by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Israel has allowed its foreign policy to be poorly misrepresented by ideologues that differ greatly from the majority of Israelis who want peace. As the US finally announced that it is reinstating an ambassador to Syria, Israel needs to consider some gestures to ease the negative attention it has received and start looking to the North to resolve its own disputes with Syria.

Turkey has recently reiterated its interest in resuming its mediating role between Israel and Syria. Israel should embrace the Turkish efforts and commit itself to a negotiated peace agreement with Syria, as the effects of this would reverberate throughout the region, especially as Iran continues to strengthen its ties to proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Though the recent rift between Turkey and Israel over Israel's handling of Gaza has put a strain on the countries' bilateral relations, Turkey remains Israel's most important strategic ally in the region and is still in the best position to mediate between the two countries. The Israeli concerns over Turkey's ability to remain neutral in its mediating efforts do not take into account the progress that Turkish mediators were able to achieve in the last round of negotiations that collapsed with Operation Cast Lead.

Turkish interests can be served only by being an honest broker, knowing full well that peace will not be made at the expense of Israel's national security interests. Israel must understand that Turkey's regional role, position and strategic objectives are changing but these changes are not contrary to the bilateral strategic relations between the two countries. Israel can benefit from a Turkish ally who is close to the Arab world. Turkey seeks Israeli-Syrian peace not merely for self-aggrandizement, but because for Turkey, a regional peace has a tremendous effect on its own national security and economic developments and will certainly have even greater impact on Israel's national security and economic interests.

Looming beyond the benefits of direct Israeli-Syrian land-for-peace negotiations are the long-term implications this would have on Syria's ties with Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. If Syria feels it is within reach of getting the Golan Heights and normal relations with the US, it takes no special acumen to understand that an Israeli-Syrian peace will fundamentally change Damascus' strategic interests and the geopolitical condition in the Middle East. Changing Syria's strategic interests will have a direct impact on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah's behavior. Syria has served as the linchpin between the three and by removing Syria's logistical and political backing, which will inadvertently result from an Israeli-Syrian peace, Hamas and Hezbollah will be critically weakened. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are direct by-products of the Israeli occupation, and only by ending its hold on the Golan will Israel be in a position to begin effectively to deal with Arab extremism. Peace with Syria will change the center of gravity of Syrian politics in the region, which is shaped by Damascus' strategic interests.

Whereas Israel's concerns over Iran's nuclear program may not be completely mitigated by an Israeli-Syrian peace, it will certainly force Tehran to rethink its strategy toward Israel. The irony is that while Israel continues to hype up the Iranian nuclear threat, and perhaps for good reason, it has lost focus on how to change the regional geopolitical dynamic and weaken Iran's influence in the region. Peace with Syria will under any circumstances reduce the prospect of using force against Iran to resolve its nuclear threat. However, under any violent scenario between Israel and Iran, Tehran will no longer be able to count on the almost automatic support of Hamas and Hezbollah because the national interests of these two groups will now be at odds with Syria's strategic interest.

Israel must seize the opportunity to enter into negotiations with Syria not only because it can now negotiate from strength but also because of the collective Arab will to make peace as enunciated time and again by the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel cannot make the claim that it seeks peace but then fail to seize the opportunity when one is presented. President Bashar al-Assad, like his father, has prioritized peace with Israel as a strategic option. He has expressed time and again his desire to conclude a deal in exchange for the Golan Heights and a healthy relationship with the US. Israel must make a choice. It cannot continue trying to justify the occupation in the name of security when the whole Arab world is extending its hand to achieve a genuine peace. Israel must choose between territory and real security; as long as Syria has territorial claims against Israel, Israel will never be secure on its northern borders. If Syria offers peace, normalization of relations, and meets Israel's legitimate security concerns and Israel still refuses, the Golan will become a national liability rather than national security asset.

The international opposition to Israel's continued occupation is growing because occupation of Arab land and the settlements is seen as the single source of continued regional strife and instability. Linking the occupation to national security concerns is viewed as nothing more than a pretext to maintain the occupation and as a recipe not only for self-isolation but a precursor for renewed violence. Indeed, even Israel's allies no longer buy into the linkage between territory and national security. It is time for Prime Minster Netanyahu to put an end to his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's reckless statements about Syria and lack of any diplomatic savoir-faire. The fact that the Israeli government is ideologically polarized offers no excuse for this kind of behavior that could result in an unintended violence that neither side wants. If Israel is truly focused on national security then it must relinquish the Golan Heights, because only a real peace with normal relations can offer Israel ultimate security.

The fact that Syria chose a negotiating venue through Turkey to regain the Golan, and may not be in a position to regain it by force, should not be taken by Israel as if it can indefinitely maintain the status quo without serious consequences. Syria has shown tremendous capacity to deny Israel peace with Lebanon and the Palestinians and can continue to do so for as long as Israel occupies the Golan. Netanyahu needs to decide if he wants peace and what sort of coalition government he should assemble to meet the Israeli majority's yearning to end the conflict. The quality of governance and what message he wants to sent to the world rests with him. He cannot shirk this responsibility by blaming it on his fractured government.

The appointment of Robert Ford as the new American ambassador to Syria has potential to open a new chapter in US-Syrian relations. Whereas the Obama administration is fully keen on trying to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it has no illusion that the real game changer in the Middle East in connection with Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians is an Israeli-Syrian peace. The Improved relations between the United States and Syria will inadvertently shift Syria's strategic calculus as the normalization of relations with the US and the prospect of regaining the Golan Heights will assume national priority over other tactical ties that Syria currently has with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The United States will have to remain relentless in its efforts to advance the Israeli-Syrian peace and may find Turkey to be the best interlocutor between the two nations.

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