Resuscitating the Syrian Option

The gravest blunder committed by the previous government, which was headed by Ehud Barak, was its failure to sign a peace treaty with Syria.

The gravest blunder committed by the previous government, which was headed by Ehud Barak, was its failure to sign a peace treaty with Syria. Initially, Barak prioritized the Syrian channel; however, like his predecessors in the Prime Minister's Office, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, he backed out at the last minute when faced with the prospect of the price tag of an Israeli withdrawal to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Barak called a halt to the negotiations with Syria after its late president Hafez Assad rejected Barak's proposal that Israel be allowed to hold on to a section of beachfront measuring a few dozen meters in width on the northeastern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Barak's belated entry into the Palestinian channel had no prospects for success because of the wide gap between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and it led Israel to disaster in military, political and economic terms.

It is unfortunate Barak did not make a greater effort. Had a peace treaty been signed with Syria, Israel's strategic position would have been dramatically altered and Israel would have been in a much stronger posture vis-a-vis the Palestinians. It would have been hard for Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to spearhead the present intifada because Syria would have been impatient to see the final stages of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights and would have been unable to provide him with the umbrella of Arab solidarity.

With its northern, southern and eastern borders defined by signed peace treaties and with security arrangements and American observers on the Golan Heights, Israel would have enjoyed a strong edge in its negotiations with the Palestinians - and without having to worry about the prospect of fighting on two fronts.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not interested in talking with Damascus. When Benjamin Ben-Eliezer wanted to reopen the Syrian dossier, Sharon stopped him in his tracks. In Israeli eyes, Bashar Assad is an individual with extremist views and a weak personality who peppers his private and diplomatic conversations with anti-Semitic remarks. He has already backed down on his late father's promise to sign a separate peace treaty with Israel and instead has painted himself into a corner with the firm commitment he gave to the Palestinians.

The present American administration is not even attempting to suggest to Sharon and Bashar Assad the possibility of renewing the Syrian-Israeli peace talks. The Americans today are interested only in ensuring peace and quiet and in preventing Israel's northern frontier from becoming another conflagration point in the Middle East. The talks the Americans have had with Bashar Assad and his officials have centered around demands for restraining Hezbollah and for ending Syrian support of terrorism.

Nonetheless, although the Syrian-Israeli peace talks are in suspended animation at present, the Syrian channel does offer a number of tantalizing points:

l Simplicity. The heart of a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty would be the permanent establishment of a border between the two countries, in return for the introduction of suitable security arrangements on the Golan Heights and on Mount Hermon. However, there would be no emotional land mines, such as the Temple Mount or the Palestinian right of return.

l A "getting down to brass tacks" approach. There are no bad memories of disillusionment, fear and lack of credibility between Syria and Israel, in contrast with the relations between the Israeli leadership and Arafat after Camp David or the present relations between the Israeli public and the Palestinians during the current intifada. Gestures of friendship are not a strong point in the Syrian regime; nonetheless, that regime is noted for its fastidious discipline and for its stringent observance of signed agreements. Israel would not have to worry about Syria ever "losing control of the situation in the field."

l Political considerations. Sharon can agree to major concessions on the Golan Heights without worrying about any threat from the direction of Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon could always brush off the cobwebs from Netanyahu's generous proposals to the Syrians to effectively silence any criticism from the rightist camp.

l Strategic considerations. The old arguments in favor of cutting a deal with Bashar Assad are still valid today: Reduction of the prospect of a regional war, a warmer relationship between Damascus and Washington, opening the door to Iran and a weakening of Arafat's stature. From the Israeli perspective, the military alliance between Israel and Turkey would be a trump card in any peace talks with the Syrians, who are in a tight bind between two powerful neighbors.

The principal obstacle to the revival of the "northern channel" is that Syria and Israel are not paying a price for the status quo. The balance of deterrence between the two countries is stable and the glowing embers that have remained in the wake of the withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops from Lebanon - for example, the Shaaba Farms and the village of Rajar - have not rekindled any conflagration on the Syrian-Israel border. The renewal of peace talks between Syria and Israel will be dependent on two conditions: a change in the policies of both countries and the tossing of a bone to Arafat, so that Bashar Assad can free himself from his Palestinian handcuffs.

What could bring about this change? Top-ranking American officials are in no hurry to unfurl the maps for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Nonetheless, Washington is already thinking about the morning after the offensive in Afghanistan and is hoping that, after an American victory in the first round of the campaign against global terrorism, Syria will become repentant, will want to join the "good guys" and will give a good kick in the behind to Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. In return, Syria will demand the Golan Heights.

The Syrian option will be resurrected at America's vigorous urging and Sharon might find himself seduced by that option, especially if it can postpone a painful disengagement from the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and from East Jerusalem.