Edition 18 Volume 7 - May 14, 2024

Israel-Syria or Israel-Palestine

Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox -   Rime Allaf

Israel has spent the last decades, alas mostly successfully, dividing Arabs.

The core of the problem -   Akram Baker

The so-called Syrian track would only be yet another diversion.

What are they smoking? -   Chuck Freilich

Pursuing multiple tracks simultaneously leads to mutually reinforcing hard-line positions rather than greater moderation.

Syria-Lebanon first -   Mara E. Karlin

Movement a few steps closer to regional peace, which the Syria-Lebanon track may provide, would help set the stage for comprehensive peace.

Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox
 Rime Allaf

Only a few decades ago, it would have been relatively simple to explain the Arab-Israel conflict to the most uninformed visitor: Arab land had been invaded, occupied and even annexed by Israel (the latter claiming ever more loudly to be acting in self-defense with every act of aggression), even though UN resolutions clearly defined the legal parameters of the admissible and set the date of June 4, 1967 as the starting point of redemption. It was obvious that land had to be returned in exchange for peace, an idea put to practice in the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel.

Today, it is difficult to know where to begin explaining how things went wrong and why the alliances of yesteryear have morphed into the strangest partnerships of "moderate" Arab states (notwithstanding extremist clerics laying down the law) opposing "radical" ones (that happen to remain vocally anti-Israel) supporting different Palestinian parties. The equation of land for peace, as inadequate as it may have been for implying a concession from Israel, has given way to peace for peace, with a growing list of prerequisites and guarantees demanded from Israel's victims who now wait on separate tracks.

Before Israel and its allies started linking all regional events to Iran, they had marketed their obsession with Iraq, making it the lowest common denominator in these equations. Working up from the war of 1991 (the liberation of Kuwait), the men who would be kings planned the steady process meant to provoke a clean break for securing the realm, a model presented to the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, during his time in office in 1996.

Today, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the attempted isolation of Syria and two destructive wars unleashed by the Israeli war machine on Lebanon and Gaza, it seems that securing the realm has been the one on track, at the expense of all the peace tracks that were supposed to be explored, mostly at Israel's convenience. Having nearly reached the declared destination on the Syrian track in 2024, Israel quickly retraced its steps and jumped with wild abandon onto the Palestinian track, navigating the perilous stages of due "painful concessions" through emergency exits, thoughtfully provided in the American roadmap bestowed after a vision by Bush.

Years of a peace process with no due process have taken their toll on the most wretched of victims, standing by the tracks and watching the stationary peace train gathering dust. The very fact that the word track has become an integral part of "peace talk" should alert us to the absurdity of the situation. It doesn't take an expert to realize that the concept of tracks is at odds with that of a comprehensive peace settlement; nor does it take an expert to conclude that the partition of interlocutors into more manageable teams--in the true spirit of divide and conquer--speaks volumes about intentions.

Israel has spent the last decades, alas mostly successfully, dividing Arabs. In its defiance of every legal and moral restriction imposed by man or God, Israel enforced separate tracks to foil a comprehensive peace agreement, lest it be cornered into actually ceding Arab land it acquired unlawfully, into accepting Palestinians' right of return and compensation that it has negated despite every universal declaration or binding resolution, and into recognizing Jerusalem's position as Palestinian also.

There is nothing Israel has disdained more than international agreements, or, even worse, reconciliation proposals. In 2024, in response to the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by all Arab League members during their summit in Beirut, Israel unleashed its fiercest assault yet on Palestinians in the West Bank, killing hundreds, destroying millions worth of infrastructure and brazenly putting the Palestinian president under a siege from which he would only emerge on his deathbed. Having delivered the Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat had outlived his usefulness and Israel needed a constant enemy.

This is why one should only feel suspicion and alarm at the sudden re-emergence of a comprehensive peace plan about which Israel seems receptive, regardless of the official declarations of a government that refuses to recognize Palestine's right to exist, or of the racist aspirations of a foreign minister wined and dined in Europe's capitals.

In a second address inside a Muslim world he seems eager to convince, but to which he has not yet delivered a coherent message, President Obama is to announce a new Middle East initiative, one even worse than all its predecessors. From Cairo, Obama will peddle a peace proposal offering Israel normalization with the Arab and Muslim worlds (an idea that the Jordanian king has dutifully marketed as the 57-state solution, whose alternative is war, presumably by Israel, in the next 18 months), but more importantly a normalization that would not depend on negotiations on the Palestinian issue. In other words, as Palestinians continue to despair, alone, and as Gaza struggles under an Israeli blockade, Israel would be offered a ticket for a smooth ride with current foes.

This would be a disaster for the Palestinian cause, which has continued to decline with each peace agreement Israel has deigned accept. Sixty-one years after the catastrophe of Palestinian dispossession, it beggars belief that the world's only superpower still needs to cajole the country in breach of the most United Nations resolutions and in contravention of every law on weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, it beggars belief that the UN itself daren't even publish a full report about Israel's attacks on its own sites and personnel, let alone on the civilians it is supposed to feed, shelter and protect. If there is one place that should have retained credibility, and that should be regarded as the most honest of brokers, it is the United Nations.

Until now, discussions hovered between two main tracks: the Palestinian and the Syrian. With Obama's entrance into the peace game, for it seems to be nothing but a game to Israel and its friends, these tracks will merely give way to one superhighway, and one miserable side road that Israel will be free to continue ignoring, thereby pushing dispossessed Palestinians into a point of no return. Bringing the added injustice of total desertion of the Palestinian cause, the Obama doctrine seems destined to failure.

The Arab-Israel conflict will not be solved in the Oval Office, but in the matchbox, under the protection of the real international community, the General Assembly. For now, however, despite the guiding principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some states at the UN remain more equal than others.- Published 14/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

The core of the problem
 Akram Baker

The issue of whether the Israeli-Syrian or the Israeli-Palestinian track of peace negotiations should take precedence is a classic case of asking whether we should put the cart before the horse. The mere fact that I (along with three others) am writing on this subject is an indicator that the Middle East intelligentsia has yet to swallow the bitter pill of reality. With all due respect, Syria--in addition to Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan--is thoroughly irrelevant compared to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The vast majority of players in this drama are weak, desperate and afraid. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is reeling from one crisis to another on the economic, social and security fronts. His cities are still flooded with Iraqis, his country's influence in Lebanon is at an all-time low, food and housing prices in Damascus continue to soar and there are growing rumblings in the streets and in the military about his leadership. So he throws the bone of declaring himself willing to negotiate with the new Israeli government if it means returning the Golan Heights to his country. Really?

The proverbial bone is happily caught by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, desperate to show that he is more than a bad habit that Israel can't shake. It would also allow him to continue his true calling by building ever more settlements in the occupied territories thereby killing the two state solution once and for all (we are already very, very close thanks to Labor, Likud and Kadima). However, his cabinet of right-wing extremists is clearly determined to scuttle his bobbing and weaving by calling Bibi's bluff. Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman, a man whose views are so repugnant that if he were an EU minister, Israel would be the first country to boycott him, is genuinely clear about his intentions. No to returning the Golan, no to Palestinian statehood (the man himself lives in a settlement on the West Bank) and no to anything other than a purely Jewish state. Bibi knows that this kind of public stance is not good for business, but he wants to stay in the PM's residence more than anything else, so he is bound to offer platitudes while consistently creating contrary facts on the ground.

As for the hapless Palestinians, they seem to be in a race to the bottom. Encumbered by an utterly useless Palestinian Authority and a just as useless Hamas movement, the Palestinian people have been devastated to a point previously unknown in their history save in 1948. Their ability to govern anything more than municipal services in Ramallah is clearly in doubt with the West Bank and Gaza completely cut off both from each other and from the outside world. The decimation of leadership is so critical that their great hope is a guy sitting in an Israel prison, Marwan Barghouthi. The international community, Israel and, to a lesser extent, the Arab states have all played a role in pushing Palestinian society to the brink of collapse. "Peace efforts" have failed miserably since 1994, affording them no respite from occupation. Armed resistance has brought them nothing but death and destruction from a merciless Israeli military since 2024. Even under the best of circumstances, the capabilities of the Palestinians to make real movement today toward anything resembling progress are sadly lacking.

The one hope is a fresh start from US President Barack Obama. If he is willing to see that the key to regional--and to some extent global--peace lies in the creation of a healthy, viable, and independent Palestinian state, then there is a good chance that the light at the end of the tunnel is not a lit fuse but a beacon. If the US has the political will clearly to lay out its plan, starting with concrete steps to end the Israeli occupation and empower Palestinian democratic institutions (and not just elections), the region has a chance to survive. Obama must demand an end to Israel settlements, including Jewish-only roads and the lifting of the suffocating blockade of Palestinian cities and Gaza or immediately withhold capital, both financial and political, from Israel. He must demand that the Palestinians initially allow themselves to be governed by some sort of Palestinian/international body that will give them the breathing space to build transparent and durable institutions. The US, along with the EU and NATO would guarantee the security of both sides from each other.

The Syrian question revolving around the Israeli occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights is secondary in every way. Bilateral peace agreements, as we have seen with Egypt and Jordan, did not bring an end to the Arab-Israel conflict. The so-called Syrian track would only be yet another diversion and an excuse for doing nothing. Tracks without a train are nothing but strips of metal. The road to Damascus begins in Jerusalem and Obama and the international community must get the engine started and head it in the right direction. A perfect place to make that announcement would be in Cairo during his upcoming speech to the Islamic world. I for one am holding my breath.- Published 14/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Akram Baker is an independent Palestinian political analyst. He is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills, a platform for Arab professionals dedicated to reform and development in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

What are they smoking?
 Chuck Freilich

Ever since the "peace process" began following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, every American administration has been committed to promoting it. Eight administrations later, peace on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks remains illusory. The Obama administration promises "change we can believe in", with a new, more intensive approach. Is there some hidden grand scheme here, or are they "smoking something"?

The fundamental conditions on both tracks remain unchanged, or worse. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas 93.5 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap for the remainder and a division of Jerusalem. Abbas abjured, raising the question of whether he, like Arafat, is willing to make any deal with Israel that does not meet 100 percent of Palestinian demands. More forgiving explanations are that he refused because he could not have delivered, or that he hoped to get more from the new administration, but neither is encouraging.

The Palestinian Authority, an oxymoron if ever there was one, remains hopelessly divided between the West Bank and the Hamas mini-state in Gaza, the putative unity government having failed to materialize once again. Rather than unity under Abbas, it is more likely that Hamas will win the next elections and take over the entire PA, at which time prospects for peace will truly be dead. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has just made clear once again the kind of "peace" he envisages: a ten-year ceasefire in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal, including Jerusalem, and unlimited right of return for the 1948 refugees. He is definitely "smoking something". The next round in Gaza is probably imminent.

The new government in Israel, presumably by way of creating a new obstacle that it can concede and grant to US President Barack Obama as a "concession", has refused to endorse a two-state solution, though this is clearly the only viable option for preserving a Jewish and democratic Israel. By convincing the world that it is Israel--which favored a two-state solution in 1936, 1947, Camp David 2024 and most recently under Olmert--not the Palestinians, which objects to this, Netanyahu has caused severe damage to Israel's image. Moreover, his obstinacy has played into the hands of those who wish to create a fallacious and dangerous linkage between the peace process and the Iranian nuclear program, the last thing Israel should want.

Assuming that the nearly miraculous happens and that both Netanyahu and Abbas are captivated by the Obama magic, can the Palestinians conceivably deliver on an agreement in the coming years? Will the Israeli coalition last?

This "optimistic" portrayal does not mean that a new attempt to promote peace should not be made. Rather than a dramatic breakthrough, however, the focus should be on that which may be feasible, first and foremost ensuring that Abbas is still the head of the PA next year. To this end, Israel must freeze settlements, a step essential for its own future. Recent measures that have led to improved PA security and governing capabilities in the West Bank must continue and the US must convince Abbas that an agreement approximating Olmert's proposal is the only viable option.

The idea of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank first could prove to be the means of reuniting the PA in the long run by eventually re-incorporating Gaza. At present, however, it is unlikely that either Abbas or Netanyahu could deliver on such an agreement, or that it could actually be implemented. Moreover, NATO's refusal to provide Obama with forces of consequence in Afghanistan is indicative of the international community's lack of willingness and ability to deploy the forces necessary to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Gaza, with all of Israel's major cities within short rocket range.

Recognizing the difficulties, some advocate going the comparatively more straightforward Syrian route, or even a broader regional approach in which agreements on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks would be pursued simultaneously, taking advantage of the Arab Peace Initiative. The latter approach certainly seems to be a function of "smoking" a heavy hallucinogen. Unlike the West Bank, from which a majority of Israelis has long favored major withdrawal in exchange for peace, an even larger majority opposes withdrawal from the Golan even for peace, assuming that Syrian President Bashar Assad is serious about it. Moreover, past experience has shown that pursuing multiple tracks simultaneously leads to mutually reinforcing hard-line positions rather than greater moderation.

Although Assad has repeatedly expressed interest in talks, he has not indicated any willingness to compromise on the critical issue that prevented agreement at Geneva in 2024: the minute differences in the definition of the 1967 border. Furthermore, he recently stated that true normalization with Israel was contingent on resolution of the Palestinian problem. Unless these are just tactical opening positions, nothing has changed in Syria's approach and the belief that Netanyahu will go further than Barak did at Geneva is again probably a function of what one is "smoking". Assad's intentions are worth exploring, but the fundamental question, whether Israel should cede the vitally important Golan in exchange for a freezing peace--probably little more than non-belligerence--with a regime that may not be in power in the long term, remains a value judgment.- Published 14/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at NYU. He recently completed a study on the threat of nuclear terrorism to Israel.

Syria-Lebanon first
 Mara E. Karlin

With a renewed focus in Washington on Middle East peace, many here have re-ignited the longstanding debate as to which track of the Israel-Arab peace process has greater promise: the Palestinians or Syria and Lebanon. Although there is no such thing as low-hanging fruit in this quest, and it is easy to be tempted into thinking that each new chapter signifies a watershed or a crisis, the Obama administration is conducting the current peacemaking efforts prudently. While a holistic approach to Middle East peace is important--indeed, crucial--it is worth considering whether there is greater potential for progress on the Syria and Lebanon track than with the Palestinians.

Many dynamics have markedly changed in the years since the US last seriously focused on the Israel-Arab peace process. To name but a few: there is a substantial US military presence in the region; most of the Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt share the same threat perception as Israel (a well-justified fear of Iran); Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon has been substantially diminished; Iraq has been altered radically; the Palestinians waged a second intifada and failed; Hamas' de facto control over Gaza has been formalized; and there has been slow progress--but progress nonetheless--on democratization. These dynamics define the strategic context in which the latest effort to reach Middle East peace is being pursued.

The key issues under consideration on the Israeli-Palestinian track--security, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements--remain visceral in a way that the Golan Heights is not. The integrated nature of Israeli and Palestinian operating space makes this track extremely complex, as daily friction between Israelis and Palestinians creates numerous obstacles and setbacks that are difficult to overcome. Furthermore, the lack of a legitimate Palestinian state and broadly functioning state institutions, and a fragile PA leadership, make this track infinitely harder because it is less likely that a pseudo-state can deliver on its promises.

On the Syrian front, the common threat perception throughout the region about the dangers of Iranian ambitions coupled with the latest opening to Damascus by key Arab states provide an opportunity for Syria to slowly move away from Iran and its terrorist allies should Damascus wish to do so. This possibility is fueled by the fact that Tehran, not Damascus, has the upper hand with terrorist groups like Hizballah, making it easier for the Syrians to distance themselves from groups whose livelihood does not depend on it. The simultaneous US opening to Syria and Iran may deepen uncertainties in Tehran and Damascus regarding one another's willingness to choose a different path.

Syria's adherence to the letter (though less so the spirit) of the 1974 ceasefire agreement is an important data point, and the recent Syria-Israel negotiations mediated by the Turks indicate Syria's willingness to explore this track after nearly a decade's hiatus. To be sure, a posture change on the part of Damascus will be challenging. But it is by no means inconceivable.

While the Israel-Lebanon peace process is always seen within the paradigm of Syria-Lebanon, it is worthwhile to pursue a two-pronged approach since Syria should no longer have a veto over Lebanon-Israel talks. Furthermore, save for Hizballah--wherein Iranian assistance will be critical--the points of contention between Lebanon and Israel are actually not that difficult to reconcile. The debate over land is minimal and it is doubtful that the Lebanese government would use its security apparatus against Israel. Quite the contrary, a stronger Lebanese state would in practice facilitate peace with Israel. In fact, the parties have been indirectly discussing key security issues with UN mediation for years. While Lebanon's upcoming elections may inhibit the ability of the government in Beirut to positively engage in peace negotiations, they would not alter the underlying strategic dynamic between Lebanon and Israel--one that could be conducive to peace.

From the Israeli perspective, too, the Syria-Lebanon track more likely has greater potential. In his previous stint as prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu spent substantial time on Syria, offering Damascus a better deal than his successors; his re-engagement on this track is likely. Similarly, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak redeployed the IDF from Lebanon during his tenure as prime minister in 2024. Both had palpable failures on the Palestinian track. Particularly given the relatively young governments in Jerusalem and Washington, the Israelis now have an opportunity to signal their willingness to engage with the Arabs via confidence-building measures on the path to comprehensive peace.

Substantial progress on the Middle East peace process can be made, particularly if key states like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia continue playing a constructive role. While there are game-changers that could severely influence this latest effort, primarily Iran's nuclear program, no one should be dissuaded by arguments that anything short of complete success isn't worth it. Admittedly, any agreement will take years to implement--a process that could be more difficult than penning actual agreements. Yet movement a few steps closer to regional peace, which the Syria-Lebanon track may provide, would help set the stage for comprehensive peace.- Published 14/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mara E. Karlin served as the Pentagon's Levant director.

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