Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Israel should talk to Syria
Corriere della Sera - June 16th 2007

There is nothing good to be said about it. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by fighters from Hamas, the Islamic Palestinian organisation that rejects the right of Israel to exist, represents a further disastrous blow to the peace process between Israel and Palestine. For Hamas to have fought their rivals in Fatah and mounted what is in effect a coup d’etat in Gaza only makes it even less possible for Israel to resume talks of any sort with the Palestinians. Yet that is not a good reason for Israel to do nothing. In fact, this could even provide a kind of opportunity for Israel—if it is imaginative enough to see it.

            Doing nothing is an obvious but also tempting option. It has always been difficult for Israeli governments to convince the Israeli public or their fellow politicians that any negotiations should take place at a time when violence is being used. The argument—and it is a powerful one—is that to negotiate with people using violence is a way of rewarding violence. It will only encourage more of the same.

            That argument makes a lot of sense, but it should not be adopted simplistically, in an absolute way. To have a chance of ending violence, it is necessary sometimes to talk even while the violence is taking place. In any case, however, right now the important people for Israel to talk to are not those who are currently using violence. It is Israel’s other traditional Arab enemy, Syria.

            Until Gaza erupted in violence, there seemed a fair chance that Syria and Israel might at last negotiate an agreement to return the area of Syria called the Golan Heights that Israel occupied in the 1967 war, almost exactly 40 years ago. An agreement over Golan is necessary if Syria and Israel are ever to make peace. But also, peace with Syria is necessary if Israel is ever to have a chance to get support from the major Arab powers for a proper peace negotiation with the Palestinians. The Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, have been trying to start a peace initiative for several years. But without Syria, the initiative has lacked credibility.

            A deal with Syria will not be simple. Even in the Golan area, Israel has allowed small settlements to be built that will have to be vacated. But while the Golan Heights were considered strategically important 40 years ago, they no longer are now, given modern weaponry. It is not worthwhile for Israel to hang on to them any longer. If the prize of a peace treaty with Syria is available, then trading Golan and the settlements will be worthwhile.

            Psychologically, the moment when all attention is on Gaza and Hamas may not seem like the right moment to push forward for a peace deal with Syria. But actually, it might be just the right time. Such negotiations are best conducted quietly, away from the glare of publicity and world attention. Gaza may offer a useful distraction. Also, no one in Israeli politics will be able to argue that to negotiate with Syria is to reward or encourage terror. At least, they will not be able to do so with credibility.

            If a deal is completed with Syria, the prospects for peace with the Palestinians will still be bleak. No peace can be had until the Palestinians are at peace with themselves. But the best option for Israel is to meanwhile find ways to strengthen its position with the other Arab states. Right now, a peace deal with Syria is the best course for Israel to pursue. It would be much better than sitting tight, and doing nothing.


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