Middle East

Middle East

Price Tags for Peace

An Israeli newspaper’s publication of a U.S. working document circulated at the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Shepherdstown triggered debate in the region over the two countries’ strategies.

On Jan. 13, Akiva Eldar of Tel Aviv’s liberal Ha’aretz reprinted the text of the leaked “framework treaty,” and analyzed the main points of contention between the two sides.

While most commentators believe that any deal will involve the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the working document indicates that Israel is prepared to push the Syrians to allow some of the estimated 17,000 Israeli Golan residents to remain.

Syrian and Syrian-controlled newspapers such as the semi-official Tishreen, the Syria Times of Damascus, and Beirut’s leftist Al-Safir countered with reports that Syria would never agree to allow Israelis to remain in the Golan.

Golan settlers appear to have political and public support across ideological lines. A Jan. 7 opinion poll published in Tel Aviv’s Yediot Aharonot revealed that only 41 percent of the Israeli public favors total withdrawal from the Golan in return for full peace, while 53 percent said they were against any such deal. On the issue of a “partial withdrawal,” the poll showed 49 percent in favor with 44 percent against it. “Barak hopes to get an Israeli civilian presence on the Golan Heights,” writes Eldar.

But in a separate editorial, Ha’aretz offers a more sober assessment. Relinquishing the Golan is “the price tag that Israel will have to pay,” it says.

The U.S. document indicates that Syria has agreed to a clause banning cooperation with “any third party in a hostile alliance of military character” or allowing land under its control to be used by hostile forces that threaten the other side’s security. Regarding the establishment of an early warning ground station on the Golan following an Israeli withdrawal, Israel has demanded the presence of Israeli monitors. The Syrians called for U.S. and French monitors.

The Israeli-Syrian negotiations leave Yasser Arafat’s position in negotiations with Israel increasingly precarious,  despite his comments to the contrary, writes Graham Usher in Cairo’s semi-official Al-Ahram Weekly. He argues that with all of its main adversaries sidelined, Israel will be under little pressure to resolve the many intractable issues that lie ahead on the Palestinian front.

Unless talks with Syria falter or Arafat is able to mobilize a consensus with Syria and other Arab states on a common course, “the Palestinians may well be entering the most fateful negotiations of their recent history from the corner where Israel has always wanted them consigned—not only as the weakest of Israel’s rapidly diminishing Arab adversaries, but also as the loneliest.”

Commentator Salah Eddine Hafez, writing in the Cairo’s semi-official Arabic-language Al-Ahram, notes that an Israeli agreement with Syria and Lebanon will significantly weaken the possibility of the Palestinians getting a fair deal, since the “Palestinian Authority will clearly suffer from its [weakened] position in attaining a just settlement and will be left alone to face the full strength of Israel and its American and European backers.”

Concerned about a domestic backlash against talks with Israel, Syrian authorities launched a preemptive crackdown on suspected dissidents. The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat of London (Jan. 4) reported that Syrian forces carried out security sweeps across the country, arresting hundreds of Islamist, leftist, and Palestinian activists.

The Palestinian expatriate Al-Quds al-Arabi of London  (Jan. 17) published a statement attributed to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood condemning the clampdown. It concluded by saying that any peace deal would be a “time bomb waiting to explode at any time.”

In Al-Hayat on Jan. 4, commentator Abdel Wahab Badrakhan voiced his suspicion that clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamists in northern Lebanon may be linked to the resumption of negotiations.