WASHINGTON — While Syria’s repeated offers to reopen peace talks with Jerusalem are triggering a fierce debate within the Israeli military and political establishment, the Bush administration appears united in its opposition to launching such negotiations.
The administration is not officially advising Israel against such talks, Israeli and American sources said. But Washington has refrained from publicly endorsing the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, and has quietly told Israeli leaders that this would be a bad time to resume talks with Syria, according to knowledgeable American and Israeli sources.
The unified front in Washington — marking a seemingly rare point of agreement on Middle East policy among officials at the State and Defense departments — stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Israel. Prime Minister Sharon has made clear in recent weeks that he has no intention of resuming negotiations with Syria anytime soon, but numerous top-level officials in Jerusalem, from the president and defense minister to the military chief of staff and intelligence heads, have publicly spoken out in favor of sitting down with Syria.
In Washington, the consensus against talks reflects the State Department’s suspicion that Israeli-Syrian discussions would simply serve as a way for Sharon to delay progress with the Palestinians, as well as the view at both the Pentagon and the National Security Council that Damascus has failed to quell the flow of support for the insurgency in Iraq.
“It really wouldn’t look good if Israel legitimizes Syria’s regime by resuming peace talks when there is talk in Washington about striking Syria militarily,” said one Israeli diplomat. It is a point, he added, not lost on Sharon.
Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, lamented what he described as the White House’s lack of interest in kick-starting talks between Jerusalem and Damascus. There is a “lack of any keen interest by this administration to foster a peace process in the Middle East,” Mustapha said.
Observers argued, however, that Sharon has his own reasons for refusing to open talks with Syria.
“Regardless of what the administration’s position is, [Sharon] doesn’t want to negotiate because he doesn’t want to give up the Golan Heights,” said Hebrew University Professor Moshe Ma’oz, one of Israel’s leading experts on Syria and a member of an Israeli National Security Council panel on Syria.
Ma’oz, who supports resuming negotiations with Damascus, said the debate over opening talks with Syria revolves around long-term strategic considerations. Proponents say that such negotiations would remove the threat of a Syrian military conflict, weaken Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists, neutralize Iran’s anti-Israeli agitation, open the door for improved relations between Israel and the Arab world and help resolve the Palestinian refugee problem in the future. Opponents, while publicly not rejecting the principle of peace negotiations, say in closed discussions that Syria is too weak to pose a real military threat to Israel, and that the no-peace-no-war situation that Syria has responsibly adhered to for more than 30 years is preferable to withdrawing from every inch of the Golan Heights.
Ma’oz noted that public opinion polls show the majority of Israel’s public — 68%, according to one recent survey — is not willing to return the Golan, even in return for peace with Syria. He warned that this approach is shortsighted. Regardless of whether President Bashar Assad is motivated by a true desire for peace or by fear of American wrath, Ma’oz said, “we are missing an important opportunity.”
On Wednesday, Ron Prosor, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, told the annual conference of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, that Israel “ought to seriously examine” Assad’s peace overtures.
Israeli President Moshe Katzav recently told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv: “In my opinion it is important and worthwhile to thoroughly check out the intentions of Bashar Assad, if he really wants to make peace with us.” The chief of staff of the Israeli military, Moshe Ya’alon, and the chief of Israeli’s military intelligence, Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, have consistently supported the resumption of negotiations with Syria. In August, Ya’alon told the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot that withdrawing from the Golan Heights would not jeopardize Israel’s security because the military “can defend Israel from any border.” Ze’evi-Farkash told the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset in February that “President Assad is serious in his intentions to reopen negotiations with Israel.”
Prospects for resuming negotiations increased recently after Assad called on Israel, through several channels, to join his country at the negotiating table “without preconditions.” Mustapha confirmed in an interview with the Forward that his government has dropped its insistence that talks start from where the two sides left off in 2000. “Now we are changing our message,” he said. “We are not presetting conditions. The only thing we are saying is that we want these negotiations to be based on the principles of land for peace, and fairness and legitimacy. That’s all.”
Israel has rejected the demand that talks pick up from where they left off, since such a move would focus the negotiations almost exclusively on whether Israel would be able to retain a narrow strip of land on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The objections in Washington to Syrian talks seem to have little to do with the actual substance of a deal between Jerusalem and Damascus.
According to David Makovsky, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who focuses on American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, American objection to Israeli-Syrian talks “is actually mainly coming from the State Department, where Syria is perceived as the ‘other woman’” — the country that would tempt Israel to shift its emphasis away from dealing with the Palestinians.
But strong objections also seem to be emanating from the Pentagon and the National Security Council, the more conservative wings of America’s foreign policy and military establishment. The Department of Defense and the White House are reportedly livid at media reports of an established infrastructure in Syria, used to recruit Islamist militants who cross the border into Iraq and join the anti-U.S. insurgency.
A reporter for the British Daily Telegraph described in detail last week how mosques across Syria are used as recruitment centers, where people are paid generously to fight in Iraq and then bused to the border, where they cross easily into Iraq.
Referring to that story, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, William Kristol, this week advocated taking military action against Syria. America has an “urgent” Syria problem, he wrote. “It is Bashar Assad’s regime that seems to be doing more than any other, right now, to help Baathists and terrorists kill Americans in the central front of the war on terror.” Kristol, who is considered close to the more conservative elements of the administration, went on to advocate limited military action against Syria: “We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq. We could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition (pro-human rights demonstrators recently tried to take to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime’s abuses). This hardly exhausts all the possible forms of pressure and coercion. But it’s time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East.”
Mustapha, told the Forward that Syria’s stepped-up efforts to open talks came in response to the realization that “the United States, for many reasons, is incapable of pressurizing Israel to have peace with its neighbors. It’s the Israeli electorate that would eventually decide whether it wants to have peace or not. Do they want their grandchildren at some point living in peace with all the children of the region, or do they want just to maintain their military superiority and impose their will?”