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FPIF Policy Report, December 15, 1999

U.S. Policy Hampers Chances for Israeli-Syrian Peace

By Stephen Zunes


Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He has spent time on both sides of the Golan Heights and has met with both the Syrian and Israeli foreign ministers. His articles on the Israeli-Syrian conflict and the negotiations have been published in Middle East Policy, International Journal and other publications.

The initial optimism at the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations may be misplaced. Though it is encouraging that the Israeli prime minister and Syrian foreign minister are meeting face-to-face-the highest level talks ever between these two rivals-their positions are too far apart at this time to expect any quick resolution.

Despite media accolades about Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "getting Syria on board," it was Israel-not Syria-that broke off the talks in 1996, after a series of terrorist attacks in Israeli cities. Though the Israeli government acknowledged that the Syrians were not involved in the bombings, Tel Aviv used the attacks as an excuse to cut off negotiations, which did not resume until this week.

Given that Israel is widely viewed as a pro-Western democracy and that Syria is a dictatorship that once had close ties with the Soviets, there has been a bias in the peace process toward Israel among many Americans. This perspective is compounded by the fact that for most of Israel's history, the Syrians refused to negotiate, financed terrorist groups that attacked Israeli civilians, and sought Israel's destruction. Underlying the Clinton administration's bias, of course, is the important role that Israel plays in advancing American strategic interests in the region and the perceived obstacle that Syria seems to face in advancing these same interests.

As a result, few Americans recognize the fact that, in the current negotiations, Syria's position is actually more moderate than Israel's and is more consistent with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which the U.S. pledged would be the basis of the talks when they opened in Madrid in 1991. The premise of these resolutions was that the Arab states would provide security guarantees for the state of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories-i.e., "land for peace." Israel has occupied much of the Golan Heights in southwestern Syria since 1967.

By 1991, the Syrians had already formally accepted these resolutions. During the negotiations between 1991 and 1996, Syria pledged to provide Israel with such long-desired security guarantees as the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, permission for international monitors and peacekeeping forces, and the signing of a non-aggression pact. Israel, however, is now saying that such security guarantees are not enough and is demanding full diplomatic and economic relations prior to a withdrawal.

Although Tel Aviv's desire for normal diplomatic and economic relations with its neighbors is quite understandable, these long-term goals should not be a requirement for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory. UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 require only that Syria provide security guarantees, nothing more. Syrian President Hafez Assad has gone a step further by promising eventual diplomatic relations.

Other points of contention are Israeli demands for access to Syrian water resources and further demilitarization by Syria beyond the Golan without comparable demilitarization on the Israeli side. President Clinton is pushing Syria to accept the Israeli position, which is essentially a case of moving the goal posts. In short, after years of criticizing Syria for refusing to accept 242 and 338, the U.S. is now criticizing Syria for insisting on their full implementation.

And the U.S. has leverage. The Clinton administration has kept Syria on its list of states supporting international terrorism, despite the fact that U.S. officials have not linked Syria to any terrorist acts since 1986. State Department officials have privately admitted that they have offered to lift the designation-which would allow Syria to import certain high-tech items from the United States-if Syria were willing to compromise further with Israel. Such maneuvering represents yet another example of the dangerous politicization of the Clinton administration's antiterrorism efforts.

Much of the media's attention has focused on Israel's security concerns regarding the Golan Heights, where--in the period between 1948 and 1967--Syrian gunners would periodically lob shells into civilian areas within Israel. However, according to UN peacekeeping forces stationed along the border during that period, Israel engaged in far more cease-fire violations and inflicted far greater civilian casualties than did Syria. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged in his diaries in 1967 that there was no clear strategic rationale for seizing the territories. Many contemporary Israeli strategic analysts agree. Indeed, in this era of medium-range missiles, controlling the high ground simply does not matter as much as it used to.

Yet, successive Israeli governments have convinced much of the Israeli public as well as Israel's supporters in the United States that holding on to this territory is critical to the country's survival. As during the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, what was once presented as a bargaining chip for negotiations has evolved into something allegedly indispensable for national security. Without U.S. pressure to compromise, it will be hard for the Israeli government of Ehud Barak to convince the population to support a withdrawal.

Return of the Golan would likely mean that the more than 13,000 Israeli Jews who live in settlements established there would be required to relocate within Israel. These settlements are illegal, however, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids colonizing one's own citizens on lands seized by military force. Previous U.S. administrations have acknowledged this illegality. This position was reconfirmed in UN Security Council resolution 446 (and subsequent resolutions), which Israel has continued to violate without objection from the Clinton administration.

There are reports that Washington has offered to compensate Israel billions of dollars for the resettlement of these colonists. Yet the Israeli government knew that these settlements were illegal when they were established and thus has no right to ask for compensation for their removal. Similarly, there have been a spate of new reports in recent weeks regarding the fertile farmland and vast water resources Israel would have to give up. There is something perverse about such widespread media attention to Israel's potential "sacrifice" of land and resources that were never theirs in the first place. At the end of the twentieth century, the right of conquest should no longer be considered a legitimizing claim of ownership. Indeed, the preamble of UN Security Council resolution 242, reflecting the United Nations Charter, explicitly states that expanding a country's territory by military force is illegitimate.

In contrast to the media focus on the Israeli perspective, there has been little concern in the U.S. about the tens of thousands of Syrian Arabs who were subject to removal due to ethnic cleansing by the invading Israeli forces in the Golan in 1967. These former residents have an even deeper attachment to the land than do the Israelis. Nor has there been much written about the provincial capital of Quneitra, which the Israelis systematically razed in 1974. In addition, Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups have documented a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations by Israeli occupation forces against those Syrian Druze still living in the Golan, the overwhelming majority of whom consider themselves Syrians and want the occupation to end.

Syria, due to its chronic economic problems and Assad's desire to put things in order before his death, appears to finally be genuinely interested in peace. The dramatic political and economic shifts in the Arab world resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of left-leaning Arab nationalist movements, and the U.S.-dominated post-Gulf War order, combined with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and its ongoing peace talks with Israel, have created a situation where Assad can no longer reap political capital from provoking conflict with Israel. As a result, the only unresolved issue blocking peace between these two countries is the Golan.

Should Israel make peace with Syria, they would also likely make peace with Lebanon, whose foreign policy is essentially controlled by Damascus. The Lebanese Hezbullah movement would be unable to continue its attacks on Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon or to pose any threat to Israel's border regions if Damascus decided it was in Syria's interest to disarm the Lebanese.

In effect, Israel can have the Golan, or it can have peace. It cannot have both. That is why Israel would be far more secure without the Golan than with it. Many Israelis, including some top military officials, recognize this.

Yet the Israeli government has not formally committed itself to withdraw from all of the occupied territory under even the most favorable circumstances. And the Clinton administration has refused to insist that they Tel Aviv do so. Until these positions change, the hope that this new round of negotiations brings will soon fade.

Unfortunately, few political figures, scholars, or journalists in this country are willing to admit this reality. Why? Though the Syrian government has undergone some major liberalization, both politically and economically, in recent years, it is still an undeniably autocratic regime with a strong state role in the economy. To appear to support such a regime, particularly with its history of supporting terrorism and its overt hostility to the United States and its allies, is politically difficult. Yet, just because a government is a dictatorship does not mean that it does not have legitimate rights and concerns that need to be taken seriously.

Similarly, just because a government is a pro-Western democracy does not give it license to violate UN Security Council resolutions, invade and annex parts of neighboring countries, and run roughshod over the most basic principles of international law. In short, sympathy with Syria's negotiating position should not be seen as support for the Damascus regime or as opposition to Israel's legitimate security concerns.

U.S. policy toward the negotiations needs to change. At minimum, Washington should do the following:

  • Continue to use its good offices to facilitate negotiations.
  • Reconfirm its support for Israel's legitimate security concerns.
  • Insist that UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338, 446, and all other relevant resolutions be enforced. This would require a complete Israeli withdrawal--both soldiers and settlers--from all occupied Syrian land in return for verifiable security guarantees.
  • Suspend economic and military aid to Israel until Tel Aviv complies fully with all outstanding UN Security Council resolutions.
  • Encourage a process that will eventually lead to full diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries.
  • Support efforts to create a more democratic Syria, encouraging forces dedicated to ending human rights abuses and creating a civil society.

Copyright (c) 1999 IRC and IPS All rights reserved.

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