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The logic of an Israel-Syria peace agreement

The last attempt at a peace deal between Israel and Syria was in the late 1990s. It fell apart only because Syria’s leader, Hafez Assad, died. Israel was prepared to return to Syria the entire Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Less famously, but perhaps even more significant in the long run, Israel was prepared to relinquish control of some of its water sources. For all this, Israel would receive peace.

Now the Syrian-Israel talks are back, under the aegis of Turkey, a rare friend of both countries. Israel’s goals in the current round of talks are much more ambitious than in the 1990s, reflecting changed realities in the region. Israel seeks not only “peace,” but four distinct, additional goals:

  1. a halt to the Syrian reliance on Iran for arms and a halt to Syrian support for Iran generally, including Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and pursuit of nuclear arms;
  2. a halt to Syria’s facilitation of (or at least blind eye to)Iran’s delivery of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syrian territory;
  3. a halt to travel of Lebanese and others to Iran for military or terrorist training via Syrian territory; and
  4. a halt to Syria’s sponsorship of Hamas.

On its face, Israel has a far greater motivation to reach a deal with Syria in 2008 than 10 years ago. Iran is a significant player against Israel, via its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, in a way it was not back then.

In our view, the present peace talks will not bring Israel any closer to its four new goals. As for the old goal — “peace” — Israel already has it, and has had it, for 34 years, mainly because Israel possesses the Golan Heights.

Since 1974, the Israeli-Syrian border has been the quietest of all of Israel’s borders. No attacks have come from Syria, and virtually no terrorists have entered Israel across this border. For “peace,” Israel has nothing to gain by returning the Golan Heights. Israel does, however, have much to lose: a strategic buffer that saved Israel from destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and whose possession by Syria before 1967 left many of Israel’s northern communities open to constant Syrian bombardment.

Moreover, Israel’s compromise of its water sources would be a form of national suicide. It is now forgotten that Syrian attempts to cut off Israel’s water sources in 1966 were the root cause of the 1967 Six Day War. If these sources were so vital to Israel in 1966 as to be worth going to war over, they are so much more vital now, since the Israeli population has grown by millions of people in the past 42 years.

Meanwhile, the motivation of Syria to break its security ties with Iran once Israel agrees to return the Golan Heights is nil. It will make no difference whether the return of the Golan Heights is in stages, each one conditioned on a specific Syrian security commitment. As has been saliently clear in Israel’s ceding of territory to Egypt and to the Palestinians, once the territory is out of Israel’s hands, the other side reneges on some or all its commitments, leaving Israel with no recourse but war, frustration or outrage — hardly the hoped for goals.

There is also a certain classic and inexorable logic chop in the entire Israeli approach to the current negotiations. Why is Syria at the table now? Mainly, perhaps exclusively, because of the aggressive Israeli destruction of the fledgling Syrian nuclear program on Sept. 6, 2007. Israel bombed it out of existence. No sanctions. No UNresolutions. No handwringing. No coalition building. No seeking permission from the US. Only old fashioned, independent Israeli deterrence. If Syria is interested in talks with Israel in the aftermath of the Israeli attack, logic dictates more of the same — more Israel deterrence, such as retention of the Golan Heights and protection of the water sources in the area, not their relinquishment.

With Syria, de facto peace nurtures peace. A de jure peace, with Israeli stripped of the Golan Heights, will generate tensions and hostilities.

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