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An Informal Diplomatic Surge: Draft Israeli-Syrian Peace Deal Revealed

By Daniel Levy, TPM Cafe.com, 16.01.07

As Secretary Rice continues her swing through the Middle East, pointedly avoiding Damascus, Haaretz journalist Akiva Eldar today revealed that two years of informal meetings have produced a draft text for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. The full text can be read here and the story here. While neither is as detailed nor dramatic as the Geneva Initiative model Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, the new text exposed in Haaretz goes another step in demystifying the parameters of a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace. Also this week, former officials and negotiators from Israel, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, the Gulf, the US and Europe met in Madrid to mark the 15th anniversary of the conference convened by Jim Baker and the grown-up Bush after the first Iraq war. So the vacuum created by the administration’s dogged insistence on military escalation combined with diplomatic docility continues to be filled by unofficial peace initiatives.
Eldar’s piece in Haaretz details a series of meetings between the former Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and ex-Ambassador, Alon Liel, and US-based associate of the Syrian leadership, Ibrahim Suleiman, mediated and hosted by European government officials. The talks took place between January 2004 and the summer of 2006. The governments in both Damascus and Jerusalem have denied that the talks received any official blessing. It does seem that this was an exploratory back channel that probably got closer to leadership circles on the Syrian than the Israeli side.
The talks themselves dealt with the four pillars that would need to be addressed in any future Israeli-Syrian negotiation: security, water, normalization and borders. The main innovation in the draft text is the idea of establishing a “park” adjacent to the Lake of Tiberias on what would be the new (old) Syrian side of the border. The park area would guarantee continued Israeli freedom of access to what is the most disputed territorial component of any future border arrangement. Other than that, the paper outlines a border demarcation based on the 1967 lines, the establishment of demilitarized and reduced military presence zones, provisions for early warning stations and international security oversight, water use arrangements, and a timetable for full withdrawal and full peace.
The Israeli media has been abuzz all day with speculation regarding this new peace plan as it follows a period of intense debate on whether Israel should continue to adhere to the American veto of engaging with Damascus or whether Israel should explore the negotiation option that Syrian President Assad has been suggesting. Several senior Israeli ministers have argued in favor of the latter. Re-engaging on the Israeli-Syrian track would of course be in line with the US “New Diplomatic Offensive” recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. President Bush’s rejection of such a diplomatic surge almost guarantees the failure of the American mission in Iraq and further undermines US credibility and capacity to lead and build alliances in the broader Middle East.
We have just marked the seventh anniversary since the last Israeli-Syrian political negotiations, hosted by President Clinton at Shepherdstown. Four senators (Dodd, Kerry, Nelson, Specter) recently visited Damascus and heard firsthand of the Syrian willingness to constructively engage on the Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian issues. But President Bush seems determined to escalate on the Syrian front, as elsewhere, and to forego diplomatic solutions. If the serious thoughtful diplomatic recommendations of the ISG wise elders and the cautioning of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against escalation and in favor of diplomacy are in a language that the President does not understand, then maybe he should turn to his own preferred sources – even in the Bible, seven lean years were enough.