Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Obama administration has an opportunity to break the current logjam in the Middle East by pushing for renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently offered to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar Assad “anytime, anywhere,” but without preconditions - and Mr. Assad rebuffed the idea. But Mr. Assad’s regime has signaled that it is willing to resume indirect negotiations through Turkey, or possibly even the United States.

The Syrian-Israeli track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where the two sides are still far apart on the central issues: Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem. By contrast, the Syrians and Israelis mainly need to negotiate over the return of the Golan Heights - a strategic terrain that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war - and related security guarantees and water access issues.

Unlike the weak Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal. Such an agreement is possible during Barack Obama’s presidency, but it will not happen without the deep involvement of his administration.

The United States has much to gain strategically from renewed Syrian-Israeli dialogue: Damascus could be pressed to play a more constructive role in the region, instead of being a spoiler. To achieve peace, Washington must be willing to dispatch U.S. personnel as monitors of any final agreement.

While Israeli and Syrian leaders occasionally exchange belligerent rhetoric, some officials display clearheaded analysis. Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, recently argued that Syria is a potential peace partner for Israel.

“Syria is a secular country and - unlike Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas - it does not rule out the chance of reaching a peace agreement with Israel,” Gen. Yadlin told a security conference in Tel Aviv, adding that the Syrian regime “is not naturally entrenched in the radical axis.”

There is a well-established framework for a Syrian-Israeli deal - and one of its architects is Frederic C. Hof, who currently serves as deputy to George J. Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace.

Before he joined the administration, Mr. Hof wrote a report for the U.S. Institute of Peace in which he laid out the idea of creating a nature preserve on the Golan Heights and parts of the Jordan River Valley that would be returned to Syria. The preserve, which would be administered by Syria, is based on existing parks and nature reserves created by Israel during its occupation. The area would be accessible to both Syrians and Israelis to encourage informal, people-to-people contacts that could solidify a peace agreement.

Syria has consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if the entire Golan Heights and small tracts in the Jordan River Valley are returned. In January 2000, President Clinton led marathon talks between Hafez Assad - Bashar’s father - and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land, about 500 yards wide, that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel.

In his report, Mr. Hof lays out how these thorny disputes over access to water can be resolved. He writes that the plan “embodies a fundamental trade-off: Syria gets the land and regulated access to the water, and Israel gets the water and regulated access to the land.”

Despite his rhetoric, Mr. Assad has shown a willingness to negotiate and he revels in the idea of proving to the world that Syria holds the crucial cards to peace and stability in the Middle East.

Israel has much to gain from a deal over the Golan. It would mean not only a peace treaty with Syria, but an end of Syrian aid to what is now Israel’s most dangerous enemy: Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia that did surprisingly well in its war with a far superior Israeli army in the summer of 2006.

Israel has exchanged occupied land for peace and security before: After the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt, Israeli forces withdrew fully from the Sinai Peninsula and Israel was able to neutralize its most dangerous military rival at the time. In the end, it was a good bargain for Israel - and for the United States, which now counts Egypt among its most important strategic allies in the Arab world.

If there are serious negotiations, the United States can demand that Mr. Assad’s regime stop interfering in Iraq, carry out domestic reforms, respect human rights, and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel.

There is an opening to revive this long-dormant track of the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Obama administration should not squander it.

Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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