Sunday, May 11, 2008

Olmert, Bush and the end to “Peace in our Time”

18 April, 2008

According to a recent Jerusalem Post report, Prime Minister Olmert is quoted in the London-based Arabic language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat as offering the Palestinians 64 percent of the West Bank, and “…forget about territory west of the security fence." He is further reported to have offered them access to the holy sites of east Jerusalem, but that the city would remain under Israeli sovereignty. With the imminent arrival of President Bush signaling his intention to hold a summit to promote the Annapolis deadline of peace-in-his-term, what is the meaning of the prime minister laying down red lines certain to spell the end to Annapolis?

Palestine is, and has been since early mandatory days, socially and politically chaotic. And if there was little likelihood of political unity before, then the failed Bush-inspired Fateh coup against Hamas in Gaza was the death knell for any possibility of a unified Palestinian regime strong enough to impose internal order. Peace with Israel cannot precede peace within Palestine. And internal peace for Palestine appears as distant today as it was in the 1920’s. So the lofty speeches of Annapolis aside, for the Palestinians there will be no peace in our time.

Syria, on the other hand, has been signaling interest in peace with Israel for years, and the two countries reportedly came within a few meters of Kineret lakefront of a comprehensive treaty in 2000. Why Barak backed out of the nearly concluded agreement in favor of yet another round of fruitless talks with Arafat and the Palestinians remains a mystery.

One of the main advantages to dealing with Syria over the Palestinians is that it is a country with a relatively stable regime. Unlike the Palestinians, and particularly the Hamas in Gaza, Syria accepts responsibility towards protecting its land and people. This is clearly proven by the seriousness with which the regime has adhered to her bi-national agreements with Israel for more than four decades. Actions against Israel in defense of what Syria sees as her national interests were perpetrated by such third parties as Hamas and Hezbollah and never by the direct use of the Syrian military.

Of course Israel does not trust Assad and the Baathist regime, and the Syrians likely feel the same about Israel. But that is precisely the point of negotiations, to test and shape intentions, limits and commitment over time. If the parties already trusted one another an agreement could be achieved almost immediately and there would be no need for a drawn out period of confidence-building and negotiation!

Regarding Iran, Syria has a relationship with the Islamic Republic similar to that between Israel and the United States. Regarding the Palestinian rejectionists, Syria let it be known decades ago that she would not sit by and allow Israel and the Palestinians to come to agreement leaving Syria alone to face her far stronger adversary, Israel across the negotiating table. Which partly explains why Syria has hosted and protected the Palestinian extremists and rejectionists, allowed them to disrupt by terror any appearance of movement towards mutual accommodation on the Palestine front. On the other hand over the past year Bashar Assad has signaled through Israeli media that the alignment with Iran and the presence of the rejectionists are open to negotiation. And should an Israel and Syria come to terms then both Iran and Hamas/Jihad would become not only unnecessary as a tool of persuasion over Israel, but very likely a threat to the Syrian regime.
I referred to peace with Syria as of strategic importance to Israel. In what way strategic, and what benefits would peace with Syria provide the Jewish state? Not necessarily in order of priority they are:

1. Peace with Syria would mean the end to the state of war between the countries and that would likely include Lebanon. This would result in a dramatic reduction in the need and frequency of military alerts and mobilizations so disruptive to the lives of Israel’s citizen-soldiers and to Israel’s economy.
2. Peace with Syria would result in Iran withdrawing from Syria/Lebanon (an obvious Israeli demand) lessening the Islamic Republic’s influence and threat to the Levant, and closing the land route for invasion and re-supply in the event of war with Israel.
3. Peace with Syria would remove the Palestinian rejectionists from Damascus (another obvious Israeli demand) making them easier targets should they enter the Territories, or less influential and dangerous if relocated to refuges more distant from Israel.
4. Peace with Syria would open the door to dialogue with the Saudi’s, circumventing their unrealistic-because-unachievable precondition of an Israel–Palestine peace.
5. Peace with Syria, would, as signaled by Assad, provide open borders between the two countries allowing a free-flow of trade and tourism. This would provide Israelis more breathing room and expanded local vacation destinations.
6. Peace with Syria would expand and open new markets for Israeli commerce to the extended Arab world.
7. Peace with Syria would open the door to military cooperation with the Saudis and the other Peninsula Arab states against the common Persian threat, further normalizing relations with those states and reducing the likelihood of an open confrontation with hegemonic Iran.


Is peace with Syria a dream, yes. But according to both official and unofficial Israeli diplomatic and intelligence sources it is within reach. Possibly caving to pressure from Bush, in the past the Olmert government demanded that Syria eject Iran and the rejectionists as precondition to negotiations. Syria predictably countered with the demand that Israel commit to return the Golan in advance of negotiations. Both demands are core issues in any negotiation, not pre-conditions. As “pre-conditions” they are obstacles, non-starters for serious discussion. Quid pro quo, demand and compensation, is the currency of the negotiating process. And a successful negotiation means, for Israel, that she finally emerges from behind her defensive and claustrophobic Garrison State walls, turns her economy away from war, grows her world-renowned technology in service of civilian rather than military production and commerce, expands her industrial base providing the capital for an economy of increasing wealth and security for her citizens.

What was Olmert’s reason for signaling an end to the fallacy of Annapolis on the eve of the arrival of President Bush? Perhaps it was a public acknowledgement of the prime minister’s awareness that regardless how long or intensive the discussions with the Palestinians, however much an agreement between the parties is desired by Israel or demanded by Bush, that the Annapolis roadmap is a train with a destination but without wheels. Perhaps Olmert is signaling the soon-to-arrive president that administration policies over the years are the major factor in creating today’s tattered Middle East, that current Bush policies are the cause and not the solution to the problems facing the Middle East today. Perhaps Olmert is declaring that Israeli-Arab interests are best served by saying a polite but firm goodbye to the American president, waiting out his obstructive term in office, hoping that the next US administration will be strategically more intelligent, diplomatically more adept, and more circumspect in deciding issues of war and peace.

An Afterthought: I had to check my calendar to confirm that today is mid-April and not April Fools Day, that the Olmert interview was not intended as a joke for the arriving US president. I then considered the possibility that the Asharq Al-Awsat interview might just be disinformation, or that the newspaper was engaged in character assassination of the prime minister. But why then would the excerpts appearing in my first paragraph have appeared in Jerusalem Post? Certainly the editors would have confirmed the quotes before printing them. Which leaves me with my original suggestion, that Prime Minister Olmert seems to have concluded that enough years have been wasted chasing the mirage of an impossible Palestinian peace and he is now sitting on his hands until the main obstacle to Israel engaging Syria, George W. Bush, has left the scene.

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