Con­di­tions are ripen­ing for a deal — not least the emer­gence of a promis­ing new me­di­a­tor

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - DANIELLA PELED

RE­CENTLY, A very se­nior Is­raeli min­is­ter pro­vided a private au­di­ence with a par­tic­u­larly neat metaphor for pos­si­ble talks be­tween Jerusalem and Da­m­as­cus. “Ne­go­ti­at­ing with Syria,” the min­is­ter said, “is not like hag­gling in the mar­ket­place. It’s like go­ing into a bou­tique. You know ex­actly what you want, and just how much you’re go­ing to have to pay for it.” The ba­sic pa­ram­e­ters of any peace deal be­tween Is­rael and Syria have been clear for years. Is­rael wants diplo­matic re­la­tions and an end to Syria act­ing as a spon­sor of ter­ror and a key ally of Iran. Syria wants the re­turn of the Golan Heights as well as in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion and fi­nan­cial aid from the West to prop up its econ­omy.

The strate­gi­cally im­por­tant Golan, with lit­tle bib­li­cal sig­nif­i­cance for Is­rael and whose set­tlers are less than hard-line, would be­come a de­mil­i­tarised zone to pre­vent the at­tacks on the Galil that were ram­pant be­fore it was cap­tured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syria has in­di­cated its agree­ment to Is­rael keep­ing early-warn­ing sta­tions on the Golan and part of it re­main­ing un­der Is­raeli con­trol on a long-term lease or as a na­ture re­serve.

At least five Is­raeli prime min­is­ters have been pre­pared to dis­cuss the de­tails of th­ese shop­ping lists, with­out clinch­ing a fi­nal deal. The last at­tempt broke down in 2000. This time, the cir­cum­stances might be dif­fer­ent.

For one thing, Syria is lan­guish­ing in both an eco­nomic cri­sis and a diplo­matic Slough of De­spond. Pres­i­dent Bashar el-As­sad has been ef­fec­tively marginalised by US Pres­i­dent Bush, not least be­cause Bush still sus­pects the Baathist dem­a­gogue of hid­ing those elu­sive Iraqi WMDs. Euro­pean al­lies such as France have de­serted him in the wake of the as­sas­si­na­tion of for­mer Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Rafik Hariri. And the Arab world is turn­ing against him, as ev­i­denced by the re­cent Arab League sum­mit in Da­m­as­cus, snubbed en­tirely by Le­banon and at­tended by em­bar­rass­ingly low-level en­voys from re­gional pow­ers such as Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia.

So Syria has few friends, with the no­table ex­cep­tion of Iran. And the Syr­i­ans them­selves are not ter­ri­bly happy en­vis­ag­ing the to­tal Ira­nian dom­i­na­tion of their coun­try.

Then there was the af­fair of the Syr­ian re­ac­tor in Tib­nah bombed by Is­rael last Septem­ber, de­tails of which were re­vealed to the US Congress last week. Ac­cord­ing to the CIA, the Is­raelis de­stroyed a nu­clear in­stal­la­tion, built with North Korean help and within weeks of com­ple­tion.

In prac­tice, both the in­ci­dent and its reper­cus­sions may be use­ful for both sides when it comes to peace­mak­ing. Is­rael has been seen to re­assert its de­ter­rence in the re­gion. And As­sad, both hu­mil­i­ated and fright­ened by the ease with which Is­rael de­tected, doc­u­mented and de­stroyed the re­ac­tor, now needs to pull some­thing dras­tic out of the bag. If not, pow­er­ful fac­tions within his own rul­ing Allaw­ite mi­nor­ity might feel they need some­one tougher to keep the regime afloat.

The vi­tal in­gre­di­ent now needed is a trusted bro­ker to nar­row the dis­tance be­tween the two sides. The nat­u­ral can­di­date, the US, sees the As­sad regime as a fun­da­men­tal link in the axis of evil. Free­lancers have been try­ing their luck, most re­cently Jimmy Carter, one in a long line of op­por­tunists who have fan­cied a quick trot around the Mid­dle East for a spot of world peace. Lack­ing any kind of lever­age, how­ever, snowy-haired for­mer pres­i­dents are of no use when it comes to se­ri­ous peace­mak­ing.

But en­ter a new ac­tor to the stage of Mid­dle East peace­mak­ing, one with both an in­ter­est and in­flu­ence, en­joy­ing good re­la­tions with both Jerusalem and Da­m­as­cus: Turkey. Ankara wants to show it­self as a ma­jor player both to the West and to the Arab world, where bro­ker­ing an his­toric peace deal could help jus­tify its close ties with Is­rael. In the face of hos­til­ity to Turkey join­ing the EU, it is also look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive sphere of in­flu­ence.

Turkey has con­sid­er­able lever­age over the As­sad regime since it ef­fec­tively con­trols the Euphrates river, one of Syria’s main wa­ter sources, with the enor­mous At­taturk dam. It can open up a whole new cor­ri­dor of de­vel­op­ment for Syria — with which its trade is al­ready soar­ing — not to men­tion Is­rael.

Of course, both Syria and Is­rael have huge hur­dles ahead. For Ehud Olmert, pub­lic opin­ion will need re­as­sur­ing with a dra­matic ges­ture or two — such as the Syr­i­ans ex­pelling Ha­mas leader Khaled Me­shal, cur­rently res­i­dent in Da­m­as­cus. For As­sad, as the head of a dicta- to­rial regime where pub­lic sup­port fig­ures rather less in de­ci­sion-mak­ing, it is get­ting fel­low Baathists and strong­men be­hind him and find­ing out where and how he will be com­pen­sated for the loss of Ira­nian sup­port.

US sup­port will be nec­es­sary, ul­ti­mately, to usher Syria into the club of moder­ates along­side Jor­dan and Egypt, but ini­tial bi­lat­eral achieve­ments might con­vince the next ad­min­is­tra­tion to get on board.

It is true that the Syr­ian border has been Is­rael’s qui­etest for more than three decades. But Is­rael is, once again, in a sit­u­a­tion where there is lit­tle hope of mean­ing­ful progress on the Pales­tinian track in the near fu­ture. The div­i­dends of peace with Syria could be so dra­matic, and the ef­fect on the wider Mid­dle East so spec­tac­u­lar, that the op­por­tu­nity to risk the sta­tus quo for a bet­ter fu­ture should not be eas­ily passed up.

For­mer US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton once said that an Is­raeli-Syr­ian deal could be ham­mered out in lit­tle more than half an hour. The US is stay­ing out of things, for now. Turkey is the bro­ker, and per­haps the only po­ten­tial peace­maker at this point will­ing to bring the two sides to­gether — or at the very least, take them shop­ping.

Daniella Peled is the JC’s for­eign ed­i­tor

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