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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Will Netanyahu try to cut a deal with Syria?

Uzi Mahnaimi writes in Sunday's Times of London that Binyamin Netanyahu is likely to try to cut a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights as a way of deflecting pressure on the 'Palestinian' issue. As many of you know, I am leery about using Mahnaimi as a source, but since this has been widely discussed in Israel, he's not really the only source for this. Let's look at what he's saying.
On reaching office, however, Netanyahu will be presented with reports compiled by Mossad, the overseas spy agency, and by military intelligence, that strongly advocate opening negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria [pictured. CiJ].

According to sources familiar with the documents, both Amos Yadlin, the head of military intelligence, and Meir Dagan, his Mossad counterpart, recommend a deal not only to eliminate the risk of war with Syria but also to create a split between Damascus and Iran, Israel’s arch foe.

A United Nations report last week said Iran had accumulated a stockpile of more than one ton of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride at its nuclear facility in Natanz. If highly enriched this would be enough for a nuclear weapon.

Intelligence analysts say no Israeli government could accept a nuclear-armed Iran. But if it came to a showdown Israel would want Syria, which has close ties to Iran, to stay neutral. It also wants Syria to stop supplying arms to Hezbollah, the Islamic political and paramilitary group in Lebanon.
Let's stop right there. Other than the use of the term uranium hexaflouride, my kids could have written most of the last four paragraphs, because he's not saying anything we don't know already. The problem is that to date, Assad has been firm that he wants every last inch of the Golan (we'll see in a minute that Netanyahu claims to have gotten a better offer in 1998 from Assad's father) and he has been totally unwilling to dissociate himself from Iran. If Israel reaches an agreement with Syria and gives them the Golan - making us more vulnerable to a Syrian attack - does anyone really think Assad would abide by it?

Then Mahnaimi goes off into FantasyLand:
Israel has recently violated Syrian sovereignty on three occasions: with the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah leader, in Damascus last February; the killing of a Syrian general, Mohammed Suleiman, near the Syrian port of Tartous last August; and a raid on an alleged nuclear facility in September 2007.
Of those three 'violations of Syrian sovereignty' the only one Israel has acknowledged is the nuclear facility (apparently not just alleged). How does Mahnaimi know about the other two? Obviously, this paragraph is irrelevant to the article but it shows how this reporter goes off into areas that he invents himself.

On the other hand, if Mahnaimi is correct, it is also true that Syria never responded to the 'violations.' Maybe because they can't? And if they can't respond to anything we do anyway, maybe there's nothing to be gained by giving them strategic land that maintains our safety.

But here's the real argument for Netanyahu negotiating with Syria:
Yesterday Senator John Kerry, the former US Democratic presidential candidate, visited Assad amid signs that Washington is stepping up pressure on Israel to negotiate a deal.

As prime minister Netanyahu came close to signing an agreement in 1998 with Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian president, in which he agreed to give back the Golan in return for a lasting peace.

“Indeed I did have negotiations with the Syrians,” Netanyahu admitted in an interview in 2007. “I told Assad I’d need Mount Hermon [a 4,000ft Israeli outpost overlooking Damascus] because I need radar to look towards Iran, and Assad gave up the mountain. I was surprised and happy.”

Aides close to Netanyahu say an agreement with Syria is the surest way for Netanyahu to make political progress with the new administration, as they profoundly disagree on other aspects of a Middle East peace deal.

“If he achieves a real breakthrough with Syria, he expects the Americans to give him a break with the Palestinians,” said a close aide of Netanyahu.
There are several points to be made here. First, if Netanyahu ends up with a 65-member right wing coalition, this will not happen because the coalition is most unlikely to allow it. Yes, Netanyahu could go to the Knesset and have it approved by the opposition (which would be likely to approve it), but we'd be going to new elections, and if you think Israel voted Right in this past election, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Giving away the Golan is even less popular here than giving away Judea and Samaria.

Second, I find it hard to believe that giving away the Golan is going to make the Obama administration forget about Judea and Samaria. Unless Netanyahu is planning to 'negotiate' over the Golan over the course of the entire Obama administration, in which case he will have to keep showing 'progress,' it's unlikely that a 'Syria first' strategy will buy him more than six months to a year. Remember what happened to the Shamir government in the early '90's? Yitzchak Shamir admitted after the fact that when he went to Madrid in 1991 he was trying to drag the 'conference' out forever to keep the Bush 41 administration at bay. In the end, Bush shut off the American loan guarantees, and sent political strategists to help Yitzchak Rabin win the ensuing election. Shamir was out of office within a year.

Third, even if Netanyahu forms a 'broad' coalition (a matter about which we will have a better idea tonight after Netanyahu meets with Tzipi Livni), it is doubtful that anyone is going to give Assad what he wants - the entire Golan immediately. Some territorial compromises will likely have to be made (and not just on Mount Hermon) and especially given the Gaza experience, it would likely have to be implemented over a lengthy period of time to make it palatable even to Kadima and Labor. Much of the Golan is Kadima and Labor voters and will not be happy vacating their homes immediately. Much of Israel's water supply originates in the Golan. The dry winters we've had for the last five years (including this one) have made everyone here leery about doing anything that will damage our water supply.

Will Netanyahu try to cut a deal with Syria? Maybe. But it's not going to be as simple as Mahnaimi - and much of the world media - think it's going to be. Don't expect to see Netanyahu offer to give Syria the entire Golan from Day One and don't expect the Syrians to cut off their relations with Iran - or with Hamas or Hezbullah.


At 7:44 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Agreed. At a minimum, Israel will want to retain control of Mount Hermon in any agreement with Syria. There's no chance the Syrians will demand less than what the Egyptians got and what the Palestinians are demanding - 100%. And there's no way an Israeli government would give a regime allied with Iran what amounts to a window into Israel's heart. Finally, no Israeli concessions on the Golan will suffice to detach Syria from Iran.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger LB said...

It's never as simple as the world thinks - for example, the "two state solution" is perceived to be "peace."

But also, I think that in a post-Gaza, post-Amona, world - the Israeli public is severely underestimated. First, the right wing camp will fight, and violently - not to mention that the Golan is more within the consensus that maybe even eastern Jerusalem. And of course there's that pesky little law mandating a national referendum on the issue - but we already know that Israeli governments don't really bother themselves with those little details.

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


You might add the Banias (the source of the Jordan River) to Mount Hermon as something Israel cannot afford to give up under any circumstances. And access to the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) on both sides. Without that, we have no water supply.


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