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Tenuous reports of renewed Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have begun circulating. Before concrete proposals are put forward, however, certain conditions must precede serious talks.
An Israeli-Syrian parley must be predicated on Syria’s abandonment of all ties to terrorism. The Baathist government’s total withdrawal of secret police and intelligence operations from Lebanon would be a long overdue step toward Lebanese sovereignty, giving a presumably strengthened central government the ability to control Syrian-allied Hizbullah terrorists.
Next up for Syrian compliance with civilized societal demands would be the closing of Syria’s border with Iraq. This would choke off free access to terrorists determined to harm American and allied troops fighting for a democratic Iraq. Syrian officials would also be expected to deliver all Iraqi war criminals in their charge to American forces, thus proving to international supporters of democracy their commitment to justice.
Another crucial precondition in advance of any negotiations would be the demolition of all weapons of mass destruction on Syrian soil, if such weapons exist anywhere in that country. Additionally, Syria would have to end its continued attempts to manufacture, purchase or export such unconventional arms as chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles.
Finally, the Syrians should be required to dismantle every one of the terrorist organizations they presently sponsor, abet, harbor or tolerate. They must stop hosting Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist operations and bring to justice Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal (who lives openly in Syria) and other terrorist leaders.
Once Syria complies with these necessary and reasonable preconditions, the following proposals for an Israeli-Syrian accord should be considered:
Golan Heights: A plan should be discussed between the two countries under which Israel would lease the Golan for an agreed-upon number of years following its technical “return” of this vital military high ground to Syria. The Israelis would have the option of maintaining the status quo, thus ensuring their ability to shield the several thousand Golan residents and neighboring Jewish communities from potential harm.
For its part, Syria would get to call the Golan its sovereign territory, thereby fulfilling its goal of “officially” regaining land lost in war almost 40 years ago.
Economic Benefits: Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is widely thought to favor his country’s participation in the modern global economy. By moving toward peaceful relations with Israel, his reported hope of reaping the benefits of 21st century trade and technology would be realized. With Syria’s new commitment to peace would come the added benefit of its removal from the State Department’s list of terrorist-supporting countries and, likely, the end of economic sanctions.
Accordingly, Syria would gain greater access to the Western world’s economic markets, along with assistance from the International Monetary Fund and/or the World Bank. With war no longer a looming threat, Syria could join Israel in transferring limited resources from deadly armaments to social and humanitarian endeavors.
Moreover, the new reality on the ground would lead to repeal of Congress’s Syria Accountability Act, which calls on Syria to, among other things, end its support for all forms of terrorism and “…enter [with the government of Lebanon] into serious unconditional bilateral negotiations with the government of Israel in order to realize a full and permanent peace.”
Water: With outside help, particularly from the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel is addressing its periodic water shortage problem via the prospects of desalinization plants and the building of reservoirs to catch and store water for recycling purposes. Over the past decade, in fact, JNF has built more than 160 reservoirs and dams, dramatically increasing Israel’s water resources.
This effort need not be for Israel’s exclusive internal benefit; as JNF President and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Ronald S. Lauder has said, “Israel must have enough water for itself and be able to sell water to whoever needs it.”
Israeli POW’s and MIA’s: Every Israeli government has been committed to securing the return of the lives or remains of its missing military personnel. There’s no reason why the Syrian authorities, given their contacts with and leverage over Lebanon’s terrorist factions, could not facilitate a deal satisfactory to both sides.
Thus, the return from captivity of Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad, Guy Hever, Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev would serve the dual political purpose of enhancing Syria’s stature with both the Israeli public and the international community. Additionally, the return to Israel of the remains of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, executed by Syria in 1965, would be an unprecedented symbol of Syrian good faith.
Restitution for Jewish Refugees: Much has been made of Palestinian demands for financial compensation for Arabs who had resided in pre-1948 Israel. But hardly a word has been uttered on behalf of the estimated 850,000 Jews who, due to well-founded fears of discrimination and death, fled Arab countries after the establishment of Israel. Addressing and resolving this most basic issue of justice in the context of a Syrian-Israeli treaty would be one more sign of receding hostilities.
* * * The culmination of an Israeli-Syrian agreement would bring four main benefits to Israel, the U.S. and the Middle East:
● Israel would finally achieve a principal Zionist goal of reaching peace accords with all its Arab neighbors. (For practical reasons, a peace treaty with Syria would lead to similarly improved relations with Lebanon.)
● Syrian behavioral transformation should result in a weaker Iran, which would lose a key ally in its support of terrorism. A weaker Iran is more likely to negotiate a face-saving end to its nuclear buildup.
● American influence on Syria’s leaders would grow dramatically.
● Perhaps most important, Syria’s rejection of terrorism would weaken international terror networks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hinted broadly that he will follow President Bush’s lead on the question of resuming peace talks with Syria. With the Syrians appearing to signal a willingness to negotiate, the time seems ripe to test Assad’s sincerity.
The diplomatic ball is in President Bush’s court. He should run with it.
About the Author: Eli Chomsky is a copy editor and staff writer for The Jewish Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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