The diplomatic crisis following allegations that the Mossad assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai has come on top of what looks like ongoing deadlock in the two-state talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But the hysteria of conflict and the ensuing dramas tend to have more appeal than the careful steps of conflict resolution.
When it comes to Israel and its regional neighbours, bellicose language often drowns out peacemaking in a conflict that so often looks intractable. But a potential opening on the Israel-Syria track deserves attention because it could offer movement in a process that suffers from fatigue and cynicism.
The recent furore over potential Syrian-Israeli negotiations revealed both the extent of mistrust and the danger of misunderstanding between two veteran foes. The rhetorical battle flared up when Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, declared that it was vital to resume peace talks with the Syrians because otherwise a war was likely to break out. His remarks were interpreted in Damascus as a threat to pursue war.
Shortly afterwards Barak said: “This is a tough neighbourhood and there is no compassion for the weak.” Behind the statement was the belief that if words were used like bullets the enemy would come to the table more likely to escalate the conflict.
The belief that only the tough can win is common in a region where politics are all too often redolent of macho posturing. The model is that only an iron fist will bring security, and no calculation is made about the traumatic consequences of war. Addressing the legitimate grievances of the conflict is too readily dismissed as weakness – and in any case remains impossible if no one listens to what the other side is saying.
Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, reveals a very different approach to the revival of peace talks. In a meeting with myself and colleagues in December last year, he said: “For peacemaking, Israel needs to be ready to recognise that Syria is entitled to every inch of the Golan, but we wish to engage in talks.” “For us,” he continued, “the land is sacred and a matter of honour.”
Muallem suggested that Syria was prepared to contemplate a step-by-step approach to the return of the Golan Heights, territory that Israel captured in the 1967 war. “There could be stages of withdrawal, the timing of which could involve a form of normalisation,” he said. “Half of the Golan could lead to an end of enmity; three-quarters of the Golan, to a special interest section in the US embassy in Damascus: a full withdrawal would allow a Syrian embassy in Israel.” Key issues, such as Syria’s support for Hamas, Hezbollah and its policy to Iran, would, he said, “only be answered after withdrawal”.
In terms of third-party mediation the Syrians are in favour of indirect talks through Turkey, which has already worked on defining the 1967 border. This unresolved issue is the demarcation of the line on the water between Syria and Israel, and determining who controls the shoreline on Lake Tiberias.
The next stage, said Muallem, “would entail direct talks with America to address the security concerns. The key issue here is US flights over the Golan in order to provide security.”
In Syria’s view, Turkey plays the role of an honest broker. But relations between Israel and Turkey plummeted after last year’s war in Gaza, and the latest diplomatic spat does not augur well for any Israeli recognition of Turkey’s good faith as a mediator.
Syria’s insistence that it will not negotiate any change in its relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas until after the Golan is returned is particularly hard for Israel to swallow. This is because Israel believes that Syria plays an active role in providing passage for Iranian weapons to these groups.
If Syria and Israel managed to scale the initial peak of agreement on the Golan, the view from the top may be significantly different. A potential role for Syria as a mediator between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah could drastically improve the chances of a long-term truce – or even a permanent resolution – between these parties. Without any legitimate process, a deluded fiction will prevail around a temporary quiet with the dangers of escalating violence, potentially leading to conflict.
As so often in conflict, it is not the end game that is the problem, but the inability to find a route to a resolution – not least because of the consequences of endless mistrust and suspicion that sets an inauspicious tone for peacemaking. It is in these conditions that active third party mediation becomes central to nurture any process and calm dangerously short-tempers. Turkey and the US now need to play a very active role.
Gabrielle Rifkind, director of the Middle East programme at Oxford Research Group, group analyst and specialist in conflict resolution.