The most important thing about the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations is not that they are happening but where they are happening. A few months ago, President Shimon Peres addressed the Turkish parliament in Hebrew. Turkey has meanwhile enlisted Syria to keep Kurdish national radicals from creating havoc on its border. Now Turkey—a state led by an Islamist leader who is committed to both a secular commonwealth and deepening ties to the European Union; not coincidentally, the strongest, most globalized, most diversified economy in the Islamic world, and its most advanced military power—has positioned itself as an even-handed mediator between its two neighbors.
The fact of Turkish impartiality should itself be seen as an achievement, not for Israeli diplomacy, exactly, but for the endurance and global reach of Israel itself. But Turkey’s message could not be clearer, even hard-headedly humane: it is time for regional peace; we can get there now. If the Turks did not think so, they would not be toying with our expectations or risking their political capital.
To the Syrians the Turks are saying (more or less): “The old struggles against Zionism and colonialism are a bore; you can cozy up to Iranian mullahs and risk another Lebanese war spinning out of control, or become a part of what is happening in the Gulf and the rest of the world; the American-European model of economic federation and collective security is the only sane way to both honor cultural (religious, national, etc.) differences and yet move away from a dusty poverty. The Sovereign Wealth Funds of Dubai are waiting.”
To the Israelis the Turks are saying: “You and we can be partners in leading the region to economic success, military stability, and more liberal (if not quite western) values; we can bring NATO in to keep the peace in Palestine, Turkish water to turn the Jordan Valley into a garden, and Israeli intellectual capital to fertilize start-ups from Amman to Damascus. We can help you find a bridge to the Islamic world, indeed, helping you helps us find our bridge to the EU. We can even talk to Sarkozy about his idea of a Mediterranean union. But you’ve got to get over the outdated idea that land, and prevailing in a vendetta war against Palestinian extremists, will bring you peace. It will only bring you Bosnia.”
BUT THE SECOND most important thing about the negotiations is that they are happening. I was not among those who believed it wise for Ehud Barak to pursue the Syrian track in advance of Palestinian “final status” negotiations in the late 1990s. Common sense suggested that any peace negotiated with Syria would fall apart if the violence between Israelis and Palestinians kept getting worse. Besides, the Israeli center had common sense and would be loathe to give up the Golan Heights—which have come to symbolize everything from early warning stations to excellent Cabernet; land that a thousand young men died for in various wars to protect the dazzling Hula Valley—for the sake of the Syrian promise of peace where there could be no peace. Few were surprised when Barak pulled out of the negotiations just when they were poised to succeed.
But such thinking is outdated. Achieving a peace treaty with Syria may in fact be the only way to get the Palestine negotiations unstuck. Unlike 1999, we all know what the Palestine deal looks like. The problem is implementing it. The Syrians are now key to funneling Iranian arms, funds and diplomatic support to Hezbollah and Hamas. When Israelis say that they can’t deal with Mahmud Abbas, or implement any deal arrived at because he is weak, what they really mean is that they can’t hope for stability as long as the Syrians are acting like Iranian proxies and backing Palestinian rejectionists. What if they stopped doing this? The deal on the Syrian front is, as Olmert says, easier to achieve and implement.
As for Olmert surviving the latest investigation to shepherd the deal through Israel’s political landscape, his personal prestige is hardly (shall we say) indispensable. Indeed his lack of prestige may even become a drag on a plan which would be better brought to conclusion by Barak, now defense minister, and Tzipi Livni. For an excellent, if patchwork story on the political prospects of the deal, see this from the truly indispensable Yossi Verter in the current Haaretz.