Why the Palestine first option

By Ted Belman

While Bush has opened the door wide for negotiations with the Palestinians, he has slammed it shut on negotiations with Syria.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, rejects this approach. He wants to Convert Syria.

An Arab-Israeli peace requires a comprehensive approach, because the problems at stake are intertwined. Not only are key issues such as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees insoluble without an all-Arab consensus, but any country that is left out of the peace process is bound to persist in its role as a revolutionary power bent on regional destabilisation.

The present US/Israel strategy is to focus on the mouse, the Palestinians, and ignore the elephant, namely the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah/Hamas rejectionists. The only reason I can think of is the possibility of negotiating a two state solution with the former and the impossibility of doing so with the latter.

The problem with this solution is that it is no solution so long as the elephant is stomping around.

Shlomo Ben Ami suggests a contrary approach.

The Ba’athist regime in Damascus is marked by two major formative experiences: Hafez al-Assad’s loss of the Golan Heights to Israel, and his son Bashar’s loss of Lebanon. Recovering the Golan, gaining recognition of Syria’s special interests in Lebanon, and reconciling with America are thus vital objectives for the regime and the best way that Bashar al-Assad can boost his legitimacy at home.

Syria’s readmission into the Arab consensus and financial support from the Gulf monarchies for abandoning the Shi’a alliance with Iran and Hezbollah would also be significant gains. Bashar may lack his father’s acumen, but he, too, knows a simple truth: peace with Israel is the price to pay.

The question remains whether Bashar understands that peace is not only about regaining the Golan, but also about normalisation of relations with Israel, which his father was reluctant to allow. The old Assad feared that open borders and the end of the politics of conflict might erode his one-party system. Peace thus requires a degree of political and socioeconomic change to diminish the appetite for military adventurism.

A Damascene conversion is not only possible, but is also vital for regional peace. The most realistic scenario is now a three-front war pitting Israel against Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. But a Syrian-Israeli peace would drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, thereby cutting off Hezbollah’s lines of arms supply while allowing the vital task of stabilising Lebanon to succeed.

Although the Palestine first approach deals with the thorniest issues, it does not address the existential threat the elephant represents and in fact weakens Israel to deal with it.

One must ask what divides the Arabs. As we know, Islam requires the eradication of Israel. Those who support the two state solution see it as a stepping stone to the ultimate objective. That is why they offer normalization only or still insist on the right of return. Those who reject it see it as a trap that hinders their objective.

Leaving aside the question of Israel’s existence, many Arab countries benefit from the conflict and want it to continue. It keeps them in power and keeps oil prices high.

They have no need for peace.

October 9, 2007 | 1 Comment »

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