Tel Aviv, Asharq Al Awsat – Dr. Nadaf Amihai, an Israeli surgeon who is well known in the world of medicine, travelled by plane to Paris to take part in an international conference. He was determined this time to take the biggest step of his life and career; he told his Jewish wife, Alona, that he had decided that he wanted a divorce. “I’m in love with a Syrian woman,” he told her. Of course, she did not believe this explanation and did not think much of it. Who knows whether her reaction was because she thought it impossible that love could blossom between a Jewish-Israeli man and a Syrian woman or whether she just did not hear the latter half of the sentence; perhaps she only heard him say that he wanted a divorce. She responded immediately and Amihai left. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, his Syrian colleague Nadia al Tabib was waiting for him in a black car. He could not control himself and asked her to marry him as they travelled in the car. He did not know that every single word he was saying was being recorded by two intelligence agencies. The car belonged to the intelligence department of the Syrian embassy in Paris, and his mobile phone, which was given to him by a Mossad agent, was tapped. Everything he said was recorded until he found himself in Damascus.
This is not a true story; it is a brief outline of an Israeli novel written in Hebrew by an Israeli writer who was inspired by talk in Israel of potential peace with Syria. The writer relied on his pessimism that such peace is possible – and this is the dominant belief amongst Israelis. Nevertheless, the issue of peace with Syria is of paramount concern to political and military leaders, media, and the academic world in Israel and a large Israeli lobby is aiming towards the goal of achieving peace with Syria.
This lobby is headed by former Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alon Liel, who was the first person to have administered secret talks with the Syrians under President Bashar al Assad. The lobby comprises of former director of the Israeli General Security Service Yaakov Peri, the former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate Yehoshua Saguy, Israeli historian Professor Moshe Maoz who published a book on late Syrian President Hafez al Assad, and others.
Alon Liel told Asharq Al-Awsat that a large number of Israeli officials said that they would rather have peace with the Syrians than the Palestinians. These officials included: Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, the Israeli’s Defense Forces [IDF] Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and several current General Staff members, as well as former chiefs of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak who also served as a minister; Moshe Yaalon who currently serves as Minister of Strategic Affairs; the former directors of Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence Uri Saguy and Aharon Zeefi Farkash and the current head Amos Yadlin; former Deputy Chief of General Staff Moshe Kaplinski; former chief of the Israeli Security Agency SHABAK Ami Ayalon; and the heads of the Israeli National Security Council Uzi Dayan and Giyora Giora Eiland.
The issue of peace with Syria has cut Israel’s political and partisan map in two; it is unlike the issue of peace with the Palestinians where there are clear right-wing and leftist positions. There are right-wing forces that support the idea of peace with Syria and prefer this idea to that of peace with the Palestinians. However, the official position of the Likud Party for instance stresses that not one inch of the Golan Heights will be relinquished. Within the Likud Party, senior ministers like Moshe Yaalon, who is close to Netanyahu, and Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Shalom Simhon, support the peace process. There are leftist forces that are objecting to peace with Syria; however these parties (Labor and Meretz) are presenting a political program in support of complete or partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights for the sake of peace. The most prominent figure rejecting peace with Syria is Israeli President Shimon Peres who does not trust the Syrian President and has doubts about his intentions and frequently launches verbal attacks on Syria.
The central forces are also divided over the same issue; some of them are for peace with Syria and others are against it. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that all Israeli prime ministers since 1992 agreed to peace negotiations with Syria: head of the Labor Party Yitzhak Rabin (1992-1995) who became well known for Rabin’s Deposit as he pledged to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher in return for peace and special security arrangements.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres (1995-1996), who succeeded Yitzhak Rabin following the latter’s assassination, continued with Israeli-Syrian negotiations and was committed to Rabin’s Deposit. In spite of his right-wing, extremist positions, Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-1999) sent his friend the Jewish-American businessman Ronald Lauder to meet late Syrian President Hafez al Assad to offer him the Golan Heights in return for peace. Ehud Barak, who succeeded Netanyahu until 2001, continued the negotiations, and only Ariel Sharon (2001-2005) closed the door officially to negotiations. Nevertheless, even Sharon turned a blind eye to the negotiations with Syria and allowed senior diplomat Alon Liel to hold indirect negotiations with Syrian officials first in Switzerland and later on in Turkey.
Liel told Asharq Al-Awsat that Sharon “knew about the negotiations and followed them. During Sharon’s tenure, solutions for nearly 85 percent of the pending issues between Israel and Syria were reached in clear agreements and memorandums.”
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2005-2009) officially, though indirectly, resumed negotiations with Turkish mediation. Olmert did this unwillingly as he was not enthusiastic because the George Bush administration was not interested in negotiations with Syria and Olmert did not want to go against Bush. But pressure mounted on Olmert within the Israeli political circles that pushed him to submit to- and administer- the negotiations, promising the Americans that he would not reach a final agreement [with the Syrians] unless he received a clear signal from Washington. Olmert was clear when he said that he knew the price of peace with Syria just like Syria knew the price of peace with Israel. He said that the presidents who succeeded him pledged to withdraw [from the Golan Heights] and revealed that he had generously offered to make peace with Syria but the Syrian president did not agree to a suitable time.
Even within the army ranks and security agencies, there is clear disagreement over the matter of peace with Syria; the chief of staff and most generals are for peace just like the Military Intelligence Directorate that also supports this peace. Liel goes on to say that the information available to him confirms that al Assad’s intentions for peace are sincere.
On the other hand however, there are army generals who have reservations and Mossad is completely against peace with Syria based on the claim that President Bashar al Assad’s intentions are insincere and that in fact “He is not interested in peace but in changing his relationship with the US administration,” and that in reality “He wants peace negotiations to help him achieve this.” However, this position has changed over the past few months since Ehud Olmert received the green light from the US to open the door to negotiations. But there are still fundamental differences.
Reviewing the positions in favour of peace with Syria, it is clear that these positions favour this idea firstly because it has a stronger chance of success than peace with other channels (Palestine and Lebanon). Alon Liel explained: “We did not come to replace Palestinian peace [with Israel] as Israel needs peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. But when we say that we prefer peace with Syria it is firstly because we believe that negotiations with Syria are possible and will not take as much effort as a lot has already been accomplished and secondly because we believe that peace with the Palestinians today is unrealistic.”
“There is division between Hamas and Fatah and the coup in Gaza further exacerbated the problem,” Liel said. He added, “There are burning issues that the current government cannot decide on now such as Jerusalem and the settlements and borders. These are extremely difficult issues for Israel. There is a similar situation on the Palestinian side as the Palestinians are not ready to embark boldly upon moderate solutions to the refugee issue and perhaps Jerusalem. This is in addition to the disastrous situation of the Palestinian leadership. There are divisions within the Palestinian ranks that have not been seen since the Nakba : Hamas has established a state in the Gaza Strip and is holding on to it at the expense of everything else, whereas Fatah is experiencing a real internal crisis. No one knows when this crisis will end, especially after Farouk Qaddoumi came out and accused President Mahmoud Abbas of killing late President Yasser Arafat. It is not right that we keep waiting for the Palestinians and missing out on opportunities for peace with Syria. For four years President Bashar al Assad has been suggesting that there be negotiations without conditions with Israel for the sake of achieving comprehensive and fair peace. Would it make sense for us to say no? Moreover, I believe that peace with Syria will facilitate peace with the Palestinians because Hamas will lose a lot of its power and influence and extremist forces will not be able to destroy the agreement [with the Palestinians] easily.”
However, other supporters of peace with Syria such as Ehud Barak had explained that peace with Syria would mean that the Palestinians would be left alone in the negotiations with Israel, and this would make them accept some of Israel’s conditions.
There is also a group of army generals who support the idea of peace. They highlight the benefits of peace in terms of security, especially as they present several security conditions for such peace. According to Major General Giyora Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council, the security arrangements for this peace are the first and basic guarantee of its endurance. Alon Liel said that security arrangements had already been agreed during negotiations between the two parties. These included making the Golan Heights area free of weapons, further expanding the secluded area equally on both sides, placing radars on the peak of Al Sheikh mountain to be under the control of a US force together with Syria and Israel, and banning the entry of Syrian troops to the Golan Heights in the same way as the existing arrangement in Egypt’s Sinai region.
However, Liel is more concerned about the economic arrangements regarding this area. He says that talk of an American project presented by US assistant Special Envoy to the Middle East Frederick Hoff in this regard originally refers back to a plan already agreed upon by the Israelis and the Syrians during their direct and indirect negotiations in Switzerland and Turkey. The plan is based on transforming the western third of the Golan Heights into a natural protectorate to be named ‘Peace Park’ to be run by the Israelis and Syrians for a certain period of time in which many economic projects will be established that aim to give momentum to the peace process on the ground. Liel is of the view that such economic cooperation is the key for peace and the guarantee for a better future because the aim is to “make peace beneficial to tens of thousands of Syrian and Israeli families so that they become the protectors of peace.”
On the other hand however, those who oppose peace with Syria consider it a non-urgent matter; some from the extremist right-wing forces maintain that the Golan Heights is a strategic security treasure for Israel, and this can be seen in the Likud Party’s official political program. Other parties consider the Golan Heights region “part of Israel’s historical land,” so they support the idea of expanding Jewish settlements there. These parties include the Jewish Home, Yisrael Beiteinu and the opposition National Union. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had negotiated for the Golan Heights during his first term in office, chose to close his election campaign last February with the following words: “We will never cede the Golan Heights.”
The most explicit statement that reflects the opposing attitude to peace with Syria was made by Jay Bikhur, a right-wing historian, who said, “I do not know why we need peace with Syria without the Golan Heights. In reality, we are living in peace with Syria that is no different fundamentally to peace with Egypt. The only difference is the piece of paper we signed with the latter, the contents of which no one remembers.”
“We call peace with Egypt ‘cold peace’ and this name suits our peace with Syria. The Egyptian president visited Israel once only to attend the funeral of our Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and that was because the Americans forced him. Furthermore, our border with Syria is more stable than our border with Egypt, and our borders with Syria are calmer than Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq. We do not visit Syria but we can visit Jordan and Egypt; this is not true because we do not visit Jordan or Egypt either.”
“The border between Israel and Syria is clearly demarcated, and the troops are separated. There are international observers, and each party knows its borders precisely and has never overstepped them since the 1973 war. These borders have lasted for several years, and the ceasefire was not violated despite the Lebanon and Gaza wars, and even after various operations in which we directly confronted Syria.”
“It is real peace and without having to return the Golan Heights. The real problem would be if we abandon that kind of peace and go for peace with a written agreement to relinquish the Golan Heights. That is when we would expect deterioration. If there is withdrawal from the Golan Heights, apart from the internal problems that will occur in Israel that will divide the nation in two, we would have to face dangers of a different kind. In the first stage, the Golan Heights would be full of Syrians.”
Bikhur estimates that approximately one million Syrians would go to the Golan Heights shortly after Israel’s withdrawal. He said, “The Syrian government is preparing to send Syrian migrants who fled the Golan Heights back there. Nearly one hundred thousand Syrians fled their villages and towns and today they are waiting for the day they can return home with their families. Those migrants hate Israel, and would be an easy catch for Israel’s enemies, especially the fundamentalists such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The migrants would be easily recruited to take part in terrorist activities against Israel. I would not rule out that President Bashar al Assad himself would back such operations as they would rather keep them busy resisting Israel than changing the regime.”
“Fundamentalism in Syria is hostile to the national regime, which attempts to impose modernity on Syria, and it wants the opportunity to topple the regime. If the regime remains, Israel would suffer from Syrian terrorism, and if it is overthrown, Israel would have a fundamentalist regime on its northern border, destroying the current state of calm and moving us into a fierce long war. So why would we need all this deterioration?”
Those in Israel who support the idea of peace with Syria are pinning their hopes on the administration of US President Barack Obama to push on with the peace negotiations. The US is a key factor in the issue of peace with Syria, according to Liel.
“During the tenure of President Bush, the Americans were an invincible obstacle to that peace. They wanted to punish President Bashar al Assad for backing terrorist elements in Iraq. They considered the negotiations to return the Golan Heights to Syria a gift the Syrian regime does not deserve because it hindered US efforts in Iraq. Today however, when the Americans act in favour of that peace, matters will change dramatically,” said Liel.
“Obama is conscious of Syria’s importance in the Middle East peace process. If it took part in the peace process, it would serve as a positive factor in the peace process in Iraq, with the Palestinians and in Lebanon. Syria is a key player in all three fields that cannot be overlooked. Here lies the importance of Syria’s ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas; it can affect all three forces or at least some of them. If it has a positive effect, it will be in favour of peace. If the effect is that Syria abandons these forces and joins the peace camp [it will also serve peace]. Both cases would serve in favour of peace.”