- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Now that the “engagement announcement” has been made public, it remains to be seen if Israel and Syria will have the courage to go through with their rapprochement and if Damascus and Jerusalem will say “yes” to end the state of war that exists between their two countries and proceed to consummate the peace treaty.

Those are three huge and difficult steps for the longtime protagonists to overcome, and each step along the way is filled with tripwires placed by parties who stand to lose from the normalization of relations between the Syrians and the Israelis, and therefore will remain opposed to the idea of peace.

Who are those likely to oppose the peace process, and what can they do about it? First in that group is Iran. Indeed, after decades of trying to export its Islamic revolution, and without success, it’s only recently that Shi’ite Iran has finally managed to make inroads in the predominantly Sunni Arab world. Iran must fear - and rightly so - that Israeli conditions for peace undoubtedly will include a clause calling for Damascus to sever its special relation with Iran and to shut down Islamist and radical groups based in Syria.

If Syria agrees, it would represent a major blow, first to Iran, whose relation with Damascus, despite having been a marriage of convenience rather than one of love, nevertheless has given the Islamic Republic its first ally in the Arab world.

Next to be affected by an Israeli-Syrian peace deal would be Hezbollah, which benefits from Syria’s support and Damascus’ authorization to transit personnel and materiel to and from Beirut and Tehran via Syrian territory. Naturally, that would have to stop.

Next to feel the effects of peace would be Hamas, whose military leadership is Damascus-based. That too would have to change.

And, of course, there is also likely to be opposition from Israeli settlers - about 25,000 of them - who have made the Golan Heights their home, viticulturists who have established a decent commerce of wine and the lovers of that wine. One also can include Israelis who like to ski, as the Golan is Israel’s only winter sports outlet.

But perhaps more pertinent is the price tag for ending this real estate dispute and who is likely to foot the bill associated with restituting the occupied Heights, such as compensating the Israeli settlers for the loss of their homes and paying for their relocation and reinstallation in other parts of Israel. A mere bagatelle of some $17 billion. This is where the United States comes in, as only Washington, with the help of the European Union and Japan, can muster that kind of hard cash.

U.S. taxpayers may well want to know why they have to dish out funds to the Golan settlers, who never should have established themselves on land that clearly belongs to Syria, and, looking at the Sinai precedent, should known not to commit similar mistakes in view of the distinct possibility they one day would be forced to move out. The Israeli government, for the reasons just mentioned, likewise never should have permitted settlement of the Golan.

The result of that policy is a double human tragedy: the first, as a result of the initial occupation in 1967, when about 100,000 Syrian Druze fled the area, and now the exodus of Israeli settlers, which will come about if and when Israel evacuates the Golan.

Regardless of one’s sympathies or lack thereof, for the settlers, a forced displacement of civilians is never a pleasant event. But if that is the price of peace, in the long run it’s a sound investment.

It remains to be seen, however, following the acknowledgment that talks are under way, if both sides will have the ability, courage and commitment to go all the way. These are still very early days, and, as outlined above, the obstacles to peace are many. Particularly in the absence of U.S. involvement and encouragement, that road from the Golan to a lasting Israel-Syria peace deal remains all the more difficult.

It also remains to be seen if the camp opposed to peace - Iran and its allies and proxies on the one side and the Israeli settlers and their lobby on the other side - can derail the peace process. Recent history demonstrates it does not require much to reignite the powder keg that is the Middle East.

Claude Salhani is the editor of the Middle East Times.

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