Golan On The Table, Gaza In The Sights

In the past, when the press has reported that Israel’s leaders were talking to Syria about returning the Golan Heights for peace, I was skeptical. First Yitzhak Rabin, then Binyamin Netanyahu, then Ehud Barak signalled to Syria that they were willing to contemplate a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement. Yet, when I compared the price to be paid with the possible benefits, it wasn’t clear to me that the deal was a good one. What were we losing by holding on to the Golan, and what would we gain by giving it up?

In contrast, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was clearly debilitating our country, and we obviously stood to gain much by leaving them and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Today, Ehud Olmert’s government is talking, indirectly, with Syria about returning the Golan Heights in the framework of a peace agreement, and with Hamas about a cease fire in the Gaza Strip. Now the benefits of an agreement with Syria seem obvious to me, while I’m skeptical about a possible agreement with Hamas.

Read moreGolan On The Table, Gaza In The Sights

The Bush Doctrine: No Peace. (And What’s the McCain Doctrine?)

As Laura Rozen points out , George W. Bush wasn’t just attacking Barack Obama in his Knesset speech dismissing negotiations with “terrorists and radicals” as appeasement. He was also attacking his host, Ehud Olmert, whose government was already engaged in indirect peace contacts with Syria via Turkey – the negotiations made public yesterday.

The contacts through Turkey reportedly began in February 2007. If so, the Olmert government may have been persuaded to act (or embarrassed into acting) by the reports published the previous month about Foreign Minister director-general Alon Liel’s back-channel negotations with Syria. The “non-paper ” – or unsigned framework agreement reached by Liel and unofficial Syrian negotiator Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman is important reading, because it gives a sense of how an Israel-Syria deal is likely to look. One creative feature: in order to keep the Golan demilitarized and to prevent competition over Jordan River water, the Golan would be turned into a giant park after Israeli withdrawal – with free access for Israelis.

Liel has stressed – in a press briefing in January 2007, and since – that a critical part of any deal is a switch in Syrian orientation from pro-Iran to pro-West. That would necessarily mean dropping support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria’s secular regime wants the reorientation in order to maintain its independence, Alon reports. For Israel, such a deal would mean much more than removing the direct military threat from Syria. With Hamas and Hezbollah weakened, Iran’s power in our area would be sigificantly reduced.

But the deal requires a third party: Washington.

Read moreThe Bush Doctrine: No Peace. (And What’s the McCain Doctrine?)

Update: Bush and Lebanon; Obama, Israel and Islam

  • As I mentioned earlier , the Bush administration’s obstruction of peace talks between Israel and Syria has helped Hezbollah and Iran push for control of Lebanon. My new piece on the subject is now up at the American Prospect :

    The time, according to Hilal Khashan, was ten minutes past the ceasefire. That was another way of saying ten minutes after another Hezbollah victory, Khashan explained. I phoned Khashan — head of the political science department at Beirut’s American University — several days into Lebanon’s latest armed upheaval. He spoke in a strangely dispassionate tone I’ve heard before in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the voice of a man taking refuge from chaos in careful analysis.

    So far, Khashan said on Sunday night, the crisis that erupted last week has yielded “a major achievement” for Hezbollah. Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, has extended its influence in Lebanon. The obvious loser is the pro-Western government of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. From Beirut, U.S. support appears to be a phantom; Bush unwilling or incapable of supporting its Lebanese allies.

    From the slightly greater distance of Jerusalem, I’d add,

    Read moreUpdate: Bush and Lebanon; Obama, Israel and Islam

Obama. What’s Complicated Here?

Gershom Gorenberg

Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and an Orthodox Jew, is in Jerusalem for the 60th anniversary celebrations. This morning my wife heard him being interviewed on Israeli Radio, in Hebrew, about the U.S. election. Kurtzer explained that he’s backing Barack Obama.

This was not exactly a revelation. Kurtzer has explained his reasons for backing Obama at length . Here’s some key snippets:

…we have had eight years of disaster with respect to our foreign policy, and I have to share with you as an analyst, we have had eight years that have [compromised] the security of the state of Israel.
An administration that has ignored the search for peace in the Middle East to a point where you have chaos in the Palestinian Authority, and you have a sham process called the Annapolis process, in which our Secretary of State, whom I admire personally, travels to region and announces when she gets there that she is bringing no new ideas.
You have an administration that hasn’t engaged in the peace process, and so inherited a bad situation in 2001 and is leaving it in a worse situation in 2008. And you have an administration that has gotten us engaged in a war in Iraq that has not only cost American lives… but it’s now being called the $3 trillion war…And I would share with you that the cost to the security of Israel is incalculable.

Read moreObama. What’s Complicated Here?

The Roadblock to Damascus Lies on Pennsylvania Avenue

Eyal Zisser, a top Israeli expert on Syria, says that Ehud Olmert and Bashar al-Assad appear serious about talking peace. The latest sign is Asad’s comment to the Qatari daily al-Watan Olmert has given him a commitment to return the entire Golan Heights.

In an analysis published through the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv U, Zisser describes that the most likely reason for Assad to reveal Olmert’s commitment, which was delivered via Turkey:

…the Syrians may have wanted to test Olmert’s seriousness, to check whether the message delivered to them was reliable, and whether Olmert would be capable of weathering the inevitable criticism from portions of the Israeli public. The fact that the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to deny the news of the commitment has been understood as a tacit confirmation of its veracity.

The peacemaker here is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,

Read moreThe Roadblock to Damascus Lies on Pennsylvania Avenue

How the Bush Administration Pursues Peace

Ha’aretz reports today on the latest leaks about the potential for Syrian-Israeli talks, and then hoses down the sparks of hopes with these paragraphs:

Following contacts between Israel and Syria, officials say significant U.S. involvement will probably be necessary for negotiations to move ahead, and that Syria is still demanding such involvement.

Both Israeli and foreign experts on Syria told Haaretz on Wednesday that a change in the American position was not on the horizon…

Read moreHow the Bush Administration Pursues Peace