Any hopes Syria attached to a swift resumption of peace talks with Israel — brokered by the new administration of US President Barack Obama — appear to have been undermined by the reluctance of the Israelis and the hesitancy of the Americans.
The election of Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of a right-wing government in Israel and the cautious pace of US re-engagement with Syria suggests that there will be little movement in the immediate future.
During his electoral campaign, Netanyahu declared that he would not return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace. While his comments smacked more of electioneering than intent, Netanyahu appears to be in no rush to resume the Turkey-brokered indirect peace talks with Syria. The talks stalled in December when Syria pulled out in protest at the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
The new Israeli government, like the Obama administration, is still formulating its policies toward Middle East peace. Israeli officials say that decisions should have been made by the time Netanyahu makes his first visit to Washington as prime minister in late May.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, backed by senior Israeli army commanders, favors pursuing peace talks with Syria. He is of the view that returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace is a worthwhile price to pay. Barak’s rationale is that peace will help break up the anti-Israel alliance formed of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, thus helping secure Israel’s northern front.
Israeli officials appear to understand that there will be no severance of ties between Syria and Iran, but expect that a peace treaty would end Syria’s military relationships with Iran and Hizbullah.
Even if the Netanyahu government agrees to negotiate, any peace deal with Syria has to be put to a national referendum. And Israeli polls show that more than two-thirds of the Israeli public are against handing back the strategic heights. Thus, Netanyahu may prefer to immerse himself in negotiations with a deeply divided Palestinian entity, knowing that success is unlikely, and allowing him to wail that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. Better that, he may calculate, than engage in the seemingly simpler negotiations with Syria where he may end up having to make the major — and unpopular — concession of handing back the Golan.
Certainly, the Syrians are skeptical that the indirect peace talks will resume, let alone full-fledged US-brokered face-to-face negotiations. Syrian officials are concerned less at the tone of the new Israeli government but more with how its composition reflects a right-ward shift in Israeli public attitudes toward peace with the Arabs.
The arrival of the Netanyahu government has dampened the tentative gains of the past year during the indirect peace talks in Turkey. According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the Syrian and Israeli delegations were based in separate hotels in Istanbul during the first round, with their Turkish hosts staying in a third and shuttling in-between. During the second and third rounds, the Turkish mediators stayed alternatively with the Syrian and Israeli delegations. By the time of the fifth and final session in December, the delegations were in the same hotel.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, relayed messages between his Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who were in separate rooms, and by phone to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
It is unclear how much was agreed upon during last year’s talks. Still, perhaps the main significance of the Turkish-brokered negotiations was in keeping the notion of peace alive, given the Bush administration’s lack of enthusiasm for promoting the Israeli-Syrian track during its final months in office.
The Obama administration is taking time to formulate its own policy toward the Mideast and appears to be in no rush to help catalyze a fresh round of peace talks between Syria and Israel. The appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy is a positive step, given his past history of negotiating in complex theaters, specifically Northern Ireland. A recent appointee to Obama’s Syria team is Fred Hof, an expert on the borders of Lebanon and Syria and author of a useful paper, published recently by the United States Institute of Peace, which expanded further on the concept of peace parks on the Golan as part of the confidence building mechanism during the implementation period of a Syrian-Israeli peace.
US officials say that Obama is serious about facilitating Middle East peace, but warn that his patience and time is finite. Indeed, his attention is being drawn away from the Middle East altogether, given the growing problems in Afghanistan and the global financial crisis.
Obama has no shortage of advisors whispering into his ear that he should forget the intricacies of Middle East peace and concentrate on domestic economic concerns. If either the Israelis or Syrians, or both, show signs of prevarication or obduracy, Obama may simply wash his hands of the affair and leave them to stew.
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London.