Syrian Peace Talks Worthy of Pursuing


Israel has resumed formal peace talks with Syria. This development comes in the midst of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations and news that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is facing serious criminal charges. Officials from Olmert’s office in Jerusalem and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s office in Damascus confirmed that Israel and Syria would launch their resumed dialogue in Ankara under Turkish auspices.

Turkey is the logical sponsor of such talks. Recently, Ugur Kenan Ipek, Turkey’s Midwest Consul General, was in St. Louis to address the St. Louis Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. He told the St. Louis Jewish Light that Turkey is eager to use its cordial relations with Israel and the Arab states to help achieve peace. “Turkey has been a bridge nation for thousands of years and we seek to spread understanding and peace throughout the region,” Ipek said.

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The resumption of negotiations with Syria came as a surprise to many observers of the Middle East in view of the continued talks between Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, aimed at the achievement of a two-state solution, and Egyptian talks with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip regarding a possible period of “calm” and a hoped-for prisoner exchange.

When Ehud Barak of the Labor Party was Israel’s prime minister, he devoted his entire tenure to achieving peace both with the Palestinians and the Syrians and came up short. His efforts brought criticism that he was attempting too much at once. In addition, the Bush Administration, which has expressed the hope for an independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel before Bush’s term ends, has actively discouraged talks with Syria. When it was announced that the Israel-Syria talks were being resumed, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino responded somewhat grudgingly: “We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it. We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we have with Syria — Syria’s support of terrorism, repression of its own people.”

Indeed, serious concerns surround Syria’s support of terrorism in the region. Syria and Iran jointly finance and support Hezbollah, the terrorist faction in Lebanon. Two years ago, Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers, setting off a 34-day war that rained rockets and missiles on Israeli cities and towns. Syria has been under investigation that its government was behind the assassination of the moderate former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri and other pro-Western Lebanese leaders.

It is also important to recognize that for the 19 years that Syria controlled the Golan Heights, its soldiers routinely fired down on Israeli kibbutzim from their gunports, causing deaths and injuries. The Golan Heights provide a commanding strategic view of southern Syria and Lebanon and northern Israel. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel suffered its greatest number of casualties in capturing the Golan Heights, and in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the Golan Heights were also the scene of fierce fighting.

More than 17,000 Israeli settlers have established homes and businesses in the Golan Heights, and they would likely be uprooted as part of a peace agreement with Syria.

Despite concerns, the peace track with Syria is worth exploring. If a peace treaty could be achieved with Syria, Israel would have formal peace agreements with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the “front-line” states that have fought Israel most often since 1948. To be sure, the Golan Heights would have to be de-militarized on the same basis as the Sinai Peninsula under the Egypt-Israel treaty negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter. The removal of the international peacekeeping force in Sinai must have the approval of both Israel and Egypt, and the same understanding with Syria would need to be a part of any agreement.

Syria would also have to agree to not only cease all financial and military support of Hezbollah, but to rein in the terrorist group to stop its unprovoked attacks on Israel, and to return captured Israeli soldiers and the remains of other Israeli soldiers they have been holding for years.

Winston Churchill, certainly one of the most forceful statesmen of the last century said in a 1955 White House speech, “To jaw, jaw is always better than to war, war.” Churchill saw the benefit of a dialogue aimed at achieving peace as preferable to another war. If indeed a genuine peace agreement with security could be achieved, however slim the chances, a process aimed at achieving a treaty is worth the effort.