Robert K. Lifton is chairman of the Israel Policy Forum and past president of the American Jewish Congress.
Shimon Peres could be coasting toward reelection as prime minister of Israel thanks to the political capital he gained with Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Instead, he has undertaken the politically risky effort of trying to make peace with Syria in 1996. He has done so with a bold new approach, one that simultaneously seeks to satisfy Israeli security concerns while flattering Hafiz al-Asad, the ruler of Syria, with the offer to become the leading figure of the Arab world.
Since Israel won the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, schoolchildren, VIPs, and almost everyone else in the country has been taken to the heights to see the military advantage of holding that plateau and to witness the vulnerability of the towns below. On a clear day, the visitor can even see Haifa off in the distance, thirty-six miles away. This legacy makes it particularly hard for the Israeli government now to turn around and return those same heights.
Recognizing this strong attachment, Rabin in January 1994 committed himself not to enter into any agreement with Damascus without first winning approval in a national referendum. Doing so had the double advantage of quieting public objections in Israel and signaling to Asad that to get a deal, he had to offer something the Israeli public would accept. On becoming prime minister, Peres confirmed his intent to hold a referendum (or, more likely at this point, to go to a general election and present it as a referendum on the Golan), so that he too must convince a majority of the Israeli electorate to change its mind about returning the Golan.
Peres has taken a number of steps to change the tone of Israeli negotiations with Damascus -- warmly inviting Asad to join with him to make peace, breaking out of the limited military talks that Rabin insisted on, having civilian negotiators sit down at the Wye Plantation in isolated, unstructured talks -- but perhaps the most important change has been for him to accept Asad's insistence on a "comprehensive peace."
For over twenty years, Asad has agreed in principle to peace with Israel, but he always demanded that it be in the context of a total Arab-Israeli deal. By insisting that Syria would only enter into a deal with Israel as part of a "comprehensive peace" along with Lebanon, the Palestinians, Jordan, and other states, he asserted Syria's primacy in the Arab world. When Egypt, the Palestinians, and Jordan reached separate arrangements with Israel, he responded with cold anger ("there is nothing good in it," he said of the Oslo accord of September 1993).1 He disdained the PLO-Israel accord, which he characterized as first having the celebration and then trying to make the deal. While he saw that agreement solving few outstanding issues ("every point in the agreement requires its own new agreement"),2 an accord he signed would leave no open issues to be resolved.
What Peres has done is to accept Asad's formulation but turn it around. His message to the Syrian leader goes as follows: You say Syria is the "beating heart" of the Arab nation and the key to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. We Israelis want a comprehensive peace; as leader of the Arab world, use your leverage to deliver the Arab states at a grand festive signing of Arab-Israeli peace. At that point, all the states that held out on your account must agree to full peace and full diplomatic, commercial, and social relations with Israel. They and you will sign agreements with Israel that, among other changes, end the primary boycott of Israeli goods and create opportunities for business and social exchange. When you offer such a broad-based and comprehensive peace, one that finally puts the century-long Arab-Israeli conflict to rest, then we Israelis can be far more flexible about issues like the placement of Israeli forces on the Golan and the drawing of international borders.
This approach both flatters Asad and puts him on the spot.
If Asad accepts Peres's approach and brings other Arab states to the table, this would captivate the Israeli public, which might well conclude that peace without the Golan offers more security than the Golan without peace, so that Peres would win the referendum (or elections). Comprehensive peace might also induce the U.S. Congress to permit American troops to be stationed on the Golan to monitor the agreement (though this decision surely will be influenced by America's experience in Bosnia) and, under the best of circumstances, it might also help to pay for the Israeli redeployment.
There are many serious obstacles to be overcome before this rosy scenario takes place. Asad may not be able to deliver the other Arab states; while several of them (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Morocco) held back on diplomatic relations with Israel and ending the primary economic boycott out of a claimed concern not to undercut Syria or "play a card that is helpful to Syria," they may in fact have motives of their own or face internal pressures to stay out. Further, the Israeli public may not accept a deal as a sufficient substitute for the Golan. Congress may refuse to send troops. The other issues between Syria and Israel (boundary lines, water allocations, or the nature of the full peace) may not be resolved. Still, this bold effort holds out, for the first-time, the possibility of a breakthrough.
In contrast to the PLO-Israel deal, which was basically made between two men, this formulation requires a Syria-Israel deal to win wide acceptance. Asad must make his commitment clear in the Arab world and convince a majority of Arab states; Peres must convince a majority of Israeli voters. Going through this crucible of Arab and Israeli opinion would have the added benefit of making such an agreement more enduring than those struck only between two heads of state.
1 Syrian Arab Television, Oct. 2, 1993. #6
2 Ibid. #6