Although United States President George W. Bush and the administration are now, finally, firmly committed to pursuing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the prognosis does not look very good. The three month unilateral ceasefire seems to be disintegrating before our eyes while neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appear anxious to fulfill the steps required in the Quartet’s roadmap
. US Secretary Colin Powell is bravely telling the world that we are not going to let terrorism stand in our way, but he is relatively powerless to stop the escalation between Hamas, Jihad, the Al Aqsa Brigades and the Israelis.
Even as the West Bank is heating up again, the Israeli border with Lebanon has suddenly come back into focus. Cross border attacks both ways suggest the possibility of escalation on that front as well. While it may be difficult to document the link between Damascus, Hizballah, cross border attacks and the violence in the West Bank and Israel, it stands to reason that violence feeds on violence. And the absence of movement toward peace feeds the frustration that helps foment terrorism.
Clearly, the authorities in Syria have to be concerned when there are signs of movement and a US-energized process on the Palestinian track, and a vacuum of movement on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. If Syria becomes the last man standing, then the authorities there will have to ask themselves what leverage they have left to negotiate on an equal basis with Israel. Iraq is out of the equation. That leaves a nervous Iran and the terrorists on Syria’s side--a much better foundation for upsetting the apple cart for the Palestinians and the US than for making peace.
For years Syria has stressed the need for a comprehensive peace and comprehensive negotiations. For years we have had an attention deficit disorder of being able to focus on only one front at a time. It is time to question that approach. Simultaneous movement on the Syria/Lebanon front and the Palestinian front would be mutually reinforcing. There would be greater incentive to stop terrorist attacks and greater support throughout the region for those willing to stand up to the terrorists. If it is true, as many suspect or claim, that Syria has been playing a hand in supporting terrorism, then the best way to stop that game is to engage Syria in negotiations.
President Bashar al Assad made it clear to Secretary Powell during their first meeting, which I attended, that he stood ready to engage in negotiations with Israel once the Palestinian track was reopened. He has repeated that pledge to me and he has since sent signals to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he is interested. It is a fact that we got close to an agreement between Israel and Syria with three separate prime ministers of Israel--in the time of Prime Minister Rabin, and then with Prime Minister Netanyahu and finally with Prime Minister Barak at Shepherdstown and Geneva. The issues are difficult but not impossible. And they may be more manageable with Prime Minister Sharon who knows the two most difficult elements, water and security, so well. Sharon has proven many times to be flexible on the issue of water. And while he is known for being tough on security issues, most of the major problems have already been solved between the two parties through combinations of technical means, limited forces zones and other mechanisms.
There is no inherent reason why Syria should support terrorism other than its fear that it might be left to its own devices, all alone with no resolution of the Golan issue. If Syria can reach agreement with Israel, there is no reason for it to continue its relationship with radical forces in Iran. On the other hand, there would be every reason for it to normalize its close relations with Lebanon, repair its relations with the United States and open itself up to foreign investment, improve its standard of living, and join the family of peaceful nations in the Middle East region. And if Israel can reach agreement with Syria, a terrorist trail would be closed, the last threat on the ground removed and Israel’s remaining enemies isolated with limited options for causing damage. This is a win-win-win situation for Syria, Lebanon and Israel. We should make it our urgent business to move these parties back to the table with as much vigor as we are investing in pursuing the roadmap with the Palestinians.-Published 21/8/2003©bitterlemons-international.org