Is Syria the key to peace in the Middle East?

Gabriel Ben-Dor discusses the concessions Israel might be prepared to make at an upcoming summit between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama

Gabriel Ben-Dor, the chair of the school of politics at the University of Haifa, is a long-time observer of the Israeli government and the peace process. In Toronto for a series of lectures this week, he spoke with Maclean’s about the upcoming May 18, summit between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, and how the Israelis are trying to shape the push for peace in the Middle East to fit their own agenda.

Q: What do you think Netanyahu’s goals are going into this summit?

A: Every Israeli prime minister coming to power has a basic dilemma: whether to accept that the present mess is inevitable and continue to muddle through, or whether to do something genuinely new to break the stalemate.

Netanyahu works together with [Defence Minister Ehud] Barak—this tandem is the real force in Israeli government today. Barak feels the Israeli-Arab conflict is a given, you have to live with it. Netanyahu thinks a little differently, that there is hope. This is a new Netanyahu. That there is hope of linking up with the key forces of what he calls the conservative, moderate pro-western Arab camp: the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and several others. Because for the first time in memory, there is someone who they are more scared of than Israel. In this case Iran.

Within this framework. Netanyahu wants to engineer a deal with the Syrians. The key for him is to detach the Syrians from Iran, which would isolate Iran. He toyed with this idea 10 years ago in his previous administration, as did Barak. If the Syrians are game for this, I think Netanyahu will surprise everyone by giving up the Golan Heights. And I think this is what he is going to bring to the table for Obama.

Q: The conventional reading in North America is that it is Netanyahu who is the hardliner. You say it’s really Barak?

A: It is Barak who has become disillusioned as a result of his 2000 dealings [when he was prime minister] with Arafat and his people. He is a pessimist. He has almost become a fatalist, thinking that Israel is destined to live like this for another hundred years. And that all you can do is buy time before the next round.

Netanyahu is more of an optimist because, in part, he is an economic rationalist. He believes that people want prosperity, that they want a good life. That the lure of life as it is lived in high quality Western societies is eventually going to be too strong for Arabs to resist.

But he’s not too optimistic on the Palestinian issue. He believes that breakthroughs are possible, but not with them. They are in a mess, particularly with Hamas being in power in Gaza.

Q: If Israel gives up the Golan, what concessions would it expect from Syria?

A: Not only formal concessions, like peace declarations, but what Netanyahu has in mind is the [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat-ization of Syria into a pro-western, relative modern country that is concerned with economic development. Anything less than that would not justify giving up the Golan Heights. But he believes that is possible and it would really isolate Iran.

Q: But the noises coming out of Washington and the Quartet powers sound very different—a comprehensive Pan-Arab/Israeli peace plan based on Saudi Arabia’s 2002 proposals. Is Netanyahu trying to short-circuit that?

A: Yes. But he may not be able to do that. Israel had unequivocally rejected that plan, but not anymore. In the last two or three weeks, there have been voices coming out of Jerusalem that say we don’t reject the plan, we would like to see them amend it. And Egypt has already indicated that this is possible.

Netanyahu realizes that any cooperation with the moderate Arab camp requires certain concessions on Israel’s part vis à vis the Palestinians. Without that, progress is not possible. The question is how much can Israel give without making Hamas stronger and weakening itself? So there are going to be gestures, short of an independent state, in the Netanyahu peace plan.

Q: What sort of gestures?

A: He’s going to make life easier. He’s going to have fewer checkpoints, greater freedom of movement. He will pull out Israel troops from certain areas. He might even make noises about freezing certain Israeli settlements or removing a couple of illegal outposts. Something symbolic to show that he means business.

Q: But far short of what has been envisioned in the past, a pull-out from the West Bank?

A: Yes. He’s not committed to that at all. He feels that the whole idea of disengagement is a failure. We gave up settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and what did we get? A Hamas state.

Q: Is there a feeling that Obama can be budged? He’s been very consistent that the cornerstone of America’s new relationship with the Middle East will be a comprehensive peace effort.

A: Obama is an enigma to Israelis. It is clear to us that he is committed to his idea of engagement, discussion and dialogue. He’s not going to be aggressive, abrupt or pushy. He wants to be the opposite of George W. Bush. But what happens after three or four months of no progress? We do know that Obama wants movement in the Middle East. And at the moment he seems devoted to the idea that the way to do that is to resolve the very troublesome Palestinian issue. What Netanyahu would like to persuade him is that this is the wrong track, and that the right track is the Syrian one. How are they going to reach an agreement? I really don’t know.

Q: Where is Israeli public opinion on all of this?

A: First of all, Israeli public opinion is quite optimistic—surprisingly so. We believe that Israel will overcome all of these threats and challenges, including terrorism and Iran. But Israelis don’t believe the other side—the Palestinians—really want peace. On the Golan Heights, Israeli public opinion is very much against giving up the territory. But Israeli public opinion was also vehemently opposed to giving up the Sinai in 1979. It’s all a matter of context. If what we get in return is a totally different Syria, Israeli public opinion might change.

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