In Annapolis, Damascus Is More Important Than Ramallah

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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America and its moderate friends and allies in the Middle East are already in bad enough shape without the setback awaiting them at Annapolis in a few weeks. It is not too late, however, to rethink this summit.

As matters now stand, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will sit down in Annapolis with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is the right peace partner for Olmert — if by that you mean he is nice, moderate, interested in a deal and almost totally lacking in authority over the polity he supposedly represents and is expected to “deliver” in the event any agreement is reached.

Almost certainly not going to be present in Annapolis is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president is not nice and not moderate — at times resembling a mafia chieftain more than a head of state — and alternately offering peace and threatening war with Israel. Yet he, unlike Abbas, is not only interested in a deal but can also deliver. Assad has not been encouraged to come to Annapolis because Olmert and President Bush don’t want to talk to him until he cleans up his act and stops assassinating Lebanese politicians and meddling in Iraq. Even the moderate Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian leaders invited to Annapolis are not enthusiastic about the notion of bringing Assad.

Yet, as matters stand, there is no potential strategic payoff for Israelis, Palestinians, Americans or moderate Arabs in Annapolis. Only if Syria is invited to attend and renew peace talks with Israel could something good conceivably emerge from the summit.

Why is a Palestinian track in Annapolis a bad idea and a Syrian track more promising? Because no amount of impassioned statements of commitment to the summit’s success on the part of Olmert, Abbas and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can change the sorry political reality shared by all three.

Like so many Israeli governments before it, Olmert’s coalition threatens to disintegrate the closer he gets to substantive peace talks with the Palestinians; Shas and Yisrael Beitenu will walk out of the coalition if Olmert dares talk substance at the summit. Moreover, the prime minister’s political status is threatened by multiple legal proceedings, while the final report of the Winograd Commission, due before the end of December, is certain to deliver more heavy criticism of his handling of last year’s war with Hezbollah. Even if a deal is reached at Annapolis, Olmert is too weak to even dismantle the outposts as required by the first phase of the old road map peace plan, now reinstated as a binding frame of reference.

Abbas, for his part, rules over a fragment of Fatah in a few enclaves in the West Bank. He displays as little resolve or authority today as he did six months ago, when he lost Gaza to Hamas. Whether Annapolis succeeds or fails, Abbas’s corrupt and unreformed Fatah party would probably lose another election to Hamas if the two parties were to agree to hold one. Abbas’s security establishment has a lot of reorganizing to do before it can challenge Hamas militarily and maintain order even in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Abbas’s government is painfully dependent on Israel for survival, further exposing Abbas politically. Abbas is certainly too weak to deliver on his road map security obligations.

Meanwhile, the host at Annapolis, the Bush administration, has failed on several fronts in the Middle East. It has never, until now, shown much interest in Israeli-Arab peace and appears to need Annapolis mostly to shore up moderate Arab support for its sorry situation in Iraq. But the moderate Arab leaders the administration is courting have so little faith in Bush, Olmert or Abbas that they have not yet agreed to attend. Nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that these same Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians represent a vital and viable Sunni Arab political system. With five out of 22 Arab League members in a state of collapse (Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Somalia and the PLO) and Egypt and Saudi Arabia shirking their traditional leadership roles, even with respect to advancing the much-ballyhooed Arab peace initiative, the Arab world has little to offer the peacemakers at Annapolis and much to lose from another failed Israeli-Palestinian effort.

In contrast to the low potential dividends of a highly doubtful Israeli-Palestinian peace breakthrough, a successful peace effort with Syria today promises a far bigger payoff than merely exchanging the Golan Heights for another cold peace. That was the equation throughout the 1990s, when no fewer than four Israeli prime ministers (Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak) negotiated with Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Today, success with Bashar could end Syrian support for Islamic militant Palestinian movements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and cut Syria out of the so-called “Shi’ite crescent” that links Iran, via the Shi’ites of Iraq and the Alawite regime in Damascus, to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This would deal a stunning blow to Iran’s drive for regional hegemony. Everyone involved in recent months’ indirect contacts between Jerusalem and Damascus acknowledges this new reality. In strategic terms, this is potentially a far greater peace dividend than anything Abbas could conceivably deliver.

All branches of the Israeli intelligence community are now convinced that Bashar al-Assad is as sincere in his offer of a peace agreement as he is industrious in preparing, with Iranian help, for possible war. They also acknowledge that the boy ruler who took over from his deceased father seven years ago has come of age, is in charge in Damascus and can deliver on a peace deal. Witness his measured and cautious response to Israel’s bombing two months ago of his North Korean-supplied nuclear project in northeast Syria.

Assad’s price, of course, is not just the Golan. He wants the West to drop its economic and diplomatic boycott, welcome him into the international community, shut up about his thuggish regime and probably even discuss Lebanon with him, despite his atrocious behavior there. Israel would have to convince Washington, as well as a few Arab capitals, that talks with Assad about these issues are justified by the potential payoff. This would require more resolute leadership from Olmert than he has displayed thus far. Still, because of what is at stake — reducing the Iranian threat, which is now paramount in Israeli strategic thinking — a move to talk to Syria might encounter less internal political opposition in Israel than the prospect of a flimsy deal with Abbas.

Thus far, Assad has been invited to Annapolis only half-heartedly, as a spear-holder rather than a hands-on participant. His refusal to come is therefore no surprise. It is not too late to correct this disastrous mistake.

Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He currently co-edits bitterlemons.org, bitterlemons-international.org and bitterlemons-dialogue.org.


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