Young nations—like young people—sometimes do crazy things. The Syrian Republic was 28 years old when the Golan Heights were occupied in 1967. Young, passionate, spirited—and foolish—it dragged itself, and everybody around it, into a imbalanced war with Israel. The rest is history. Six days later, Israel occupied the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. Today, 41 years later, the scar and its permanent distortion of the Arab psyche remain strongly imprinted in the Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian mindsets.
The Syrians did go to war in 1948 or 1967 for the Golan Heights. They went to war for Palestine. Many long years have since passed, and four generations have grown up, hearing of the Golan. We still speak nostalgically about it—certain that it is going to be restored at some point in our lifetime, through a peace process that was started at Madrid after the Gulf War. We have written thousands of poems, authored hundreds of books, produced dozens of documentaries, and named endless projects, factories, and monuments, after the Golan. This week, hopes were raised, for the first time in years, that the Golan was on its way to being restored to Syria. Damascus, Tel Aviv, and Ankara announced, within an interval of no more than five minutes, that peace talks were underway between Syria and Israel, under patronage of the Turks.
Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I have seen this scene, and heart this rhetoric, far too often since 1990. Last June 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared on the Saudi al-Arabiyya TV, and appealed directly to President Bashar al-Assad, saying “Bashar Al Assad, you know that I am ready for direct talks with you. I am ready to sit with you and talk about peace, not war.” The Syrian President responded in July, claiming that Syria was ready for talks, based on UNSCR 242 (land-for-peace) and restoration of land up to the June 4, 1967 border. By September 2007, instead of talking peace, the Israelis sent four warplanes into Syria and bombed a military site, claiming (six months later) that it was being used for nuclear technology by the Syrians and North Koreans.
Last April 2008, Israel conducted the largest military maneuver in its history, on the border with Syria. The Syrians called in their reserves. Then the Israelis do nothing and rather, claim that they are still, ready for peace with the Syrians.
The indirect talks between Syria and Israel, via Turkey, are not new. Nor are they a prelude to any peace treaty—so long as George W. Bush is in the White House. They have managed to lift spirits, however, coming hours after warring Lebanese factions announced that they had reached an agreement in Doha on May 22, 2008.
There was optimism in the air in Damascus.
No more talk of summer war in the Middle East, which has haunted Syrian lives since 2006.
No more dangers of another sectarian outburst—at least for now—in neighboring Lebanon. The Syrians were pleased that Beirut—the traditional haven for all Syrians—was now back to normal and they could go there again, for education, medication, shopping, pleasure, and to see family and friends.
Peace would mean many things, as far as the Syrians are concerned. No more emergency laws that have been in-place since 1963. Nor more forced conscription into the Syrian Army for a draft that lasts up to 24-months. No more limited investment in Syria, and thus, much more job opportunities.
Parts of the puzzle suddenly seemed to fall into place. One year ago, US Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to Damascus, carrying a message from Olmert. Last month, ex-US President Jimmy Carter visited Syria and said that, "about 85% of the differences between Israel and Syria have already been resolved, including borders, water rights, the establishment of a security zone, and on the presence of international forces. It was just a "matter of reconvening the talks and concluding an agreement." Then comes a statement from the Syrians, saying that they were discussing peace with the Israelis, through Turkey. The Turks confirmed. And then, so did the Israelis.
To many this seemed like the romantic exchange of goodwill gestures between Israel and Anwar Sadat on the eve of his historical visit to occupied Jerusalem in 1977. What made it easier for Sadat is that at the time, Likud was in power, headed by the reliable Menachem Begin. Although one of the Arabs' worst enemies, whose name graced the massacre of Deir Yassin in 1948, Begin was a leader. The Israelis knew that he was patriotic to the bone and would not question his intentions in peace with Egypt. He was not flirting with Sadat because he wanted peace. On the contrary, he wanted to drown the efforts of the then recently elected US president Jimmy Carter to broker peace between Israel and Yasser Arafat.
Begin would have dealt with the devil rather than the Palestine Liberation Organization. He took the initiative, sending messages to Sadat, via Romania, Iran and Morocco, calling for a bilateral peace that would drown all of Carter's ambitions for the Middle East. At the end of the day, however, there was also a reliable president in Washington DC, who although not informed on the talks, immediately supported them.
Olmert is not Begin and George W. Bush is not Carter. Begin could do things and get away with them - like relinquish the Sinai Peninsula. Now, however, even before talks started, Israeli MPs were outraged with their defeated prime minister making a move towards Syria.
Yuval Steinitz of Likud was quoted in Haaretz saying, "Olmert's readiness to withdraw from the Golan represents an unprecedented political and national abandon."
Additionally, the Turks are not the United States and they cannot deliver peace in the Middle East. They can however, play the role of a mediator. If any real deal were to materialize, it would need American blessing. At this stage, and in what remains of the Bush administration, the Americans are simply un-interested in a Syrian-Israeli peace. That is a fact. They believe that the Syrians are interested in a 'peace process' rather than a 'peace deal' to end the US-led isolation imposed on Syria since 2003.
Bush made it clear, five years ago, when he said "Syria just has to wait" before it sits down to talk peace with the Israelis. That changed when progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track started going nowhere after Annapolis. Olmert, desperate for some kind of a success story to wash out his 2006 adventure in Lebanon, might have decided to switch tracks between Mahmoud Abbas and Syria. Although the Americans do not endorse such a move, they have repeatedly affirmed that they will not oppose it.
American neutrality is equal to American passiveness. This simply can never see the light without a determined US administration. That’s why the entire fuss over what this latest ‘breakthrough’ means for Syria and Israel is out of place. These are just stepping stones—much needed nevertheless—for whomever wins the upcoming US elections.
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