During my recent trip to Israel, the general feeling of my friends in the Israeli peace camp was that the horizon for negotiations of any sort had moved further away due to the disarray on the Palestinian side, Israeli governmental weakness and the focus on the Iranian threat. That said, there are two initiatives that provide the optimists among us hope, precisely because they have the potential to “change the rules.”
The first is the renewed effort by certain Arab countries to revive the 2002 Saudi Initiative as a basis for peace negotiations. The central points, generally acceptable to Israel as a starting point for negotiations, require Israel to withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967 and in return, all Arab states will offer normal diplomatic relations including recognition of Israel’s right to exist and secure its borders. The proposal also calls for a “just and negotiated” agreement regarding Arab refugees. That language in itself needn’t trouble Israel at this juncture, but in its current form, the Saudi plan bases its demand for exercising the Right of Return on United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 which the Palestinians interpret as calling for the resettlement of refugees inside Israeli territory. That doesn’t work in the scenario of a two-state solution for obvious demographic reasons, not to mention the other reasons for objecting to a return of Palestinians to their former homes.
The good news is that the U.S. is in conversations with both the Saudis and the Israelis in attempts to bridge the gap before the Arab Summit scheduled for Riyadh at the end of the month. The Israel government finds this an attractive approach for a number of reasons. First, it puts them in dialogue with leading moderate Arab countries who are natural allies in confronting Iran, as well as future trading partners once peace is achieved. Second, it allows for progress on the peace front while the Palestinians sort out their internal affairs. I know that logic suggests that the parties involved, the Israelis and the Palestinians, should be negotiating across the table, but sometimes logjams create the need to look for new approaches.
I was fortunate to participate in a conference call hosted by the Israel Policy Forum last week that addressed the second initiative, a possible peace agreement with Syria. Secret, non-governmental discussions between Israeli and Syrian representatives were made public recently after the Israeli government decided not to pursue the negotiations on an official level. It has been widely reported that the U.S. government seriously frowns upon Israel contact with Syria. I personally was told this by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel in response to a question I posed to him in Jerusalem recently. It appears from several sources, including Dr. Alon Liel who headed up these contacts with the Syrians, that while Israel did not want to cross the U.S. on this subject, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert feels too weak to embark upon this path even if he wanted to.
Dr. Liel, a retired Israeli diplomat, shared with us that he was approached in early 2004 by Turkish contacts and told that Syrian officials wished to engage in official talks with Israel. While the Israeli government at the time was not interested, the sides decided to proceed in a non-governmental format; although the Syrian representative, a Syrian-American named Ibrahim Suleiman, was in regular contact with officials in Damascus. The Swiss mediator also traveled to Syria to confirm official Syrian concurrence with the terms of the agreement.
While he provided a great deal of detail on the flow of the meetings, the essence of this creative agreement can be boiled down to this: The Syrians were very rigid on the issue of ultimate Syrian sovereignty over all of the territory. They were not interested in offers of a three way territory swap that would include Israel, Syria and Jordan. The solution that was reached views the Golan as a type of park where people from both countries can visit, tend vineyards, ski and work, but where no one sleeps at night. In other words, Israelis could work there but would go home to Israel at night. Another provision would allow for a five-year transition period in which Israel could observe up close Syrian intentions before actually leaving the territory. No such agreement will be perfect but it appears to me that there was some good “out of the box” thinking here.
Once they completed the agreement and Dr. Liel found that the Israel Government was not willing to move forward, he went public in hopes that others would help keep the initiative alive. In fact, Dr. Liel and Mr. Suleiman have been invited to the Knesset Foreign Relations Committee on April 12 to discuss the accord. This is evidently the first time a Syrian has been invited to such a forum. They also hope to organize some joint political activity on both sides of the board, which would be a first for Syria.
Before closing this piece, I want to add a word about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted into Gaza last summer. During my visit to Israel last month I had the opportunity to meet his father, Noam. While it is impossible to fully comprehend what the Shalits and all of the families of the missing soldiers are going through, speaking to Noam personally made it all the more real for me. We discussed the Mecca Agreement between Hamas and Fatah which had been announced that morning, wondering whether it might facilitate Gilad’s release. News reports this weekend suggest that may be true; I hope and pray that it is so.