Israel-Syria: Bridging the road to Damascus

By Khaled Diab

Israeli voters should give their next leader a clear mandate to negotiate an equitable peace with .

August 2008

There are certain things that cannot be left to chance – or the whims of politicians. Forging a durable and sustainable peace with Syria is one of those issues. Peace talks with Syria, this time mediated by Turkey, are at the most promising point they've been for the past eight years.

Sceptics fear that the political scandals embroiling the current government and Ehud Olmert's decision to step down as prime minister will set back, or even derail, the current efforts.

But that need not be so. The current political chaos hands the Israeli electorate a golden chance to shape the country's destiny. The electorate needs to send a clear message to the candidates at the forthcoming Kadima elections that a peace deal with Syria and the necessary compromises this involves is a number one priority. Israelis need to vote against the ultra-hardline, unilateral policies of their government since Ariel Sharon took over in 2001 because they have not brought the security Israelis yearn for and have only ignited even more fear, hatred and distrust.

Despite the desire of millions of Israeli citizens to enjoy good neighbourly relations in the region, the country today resembles a massive fortress, as gropes for the false security of higher and higher walls. But even a barrier that reaches to the stratosphere and the “iron wall” of a mighty army can never be a substitute for true peace.

As Israel celebrates six decades of existence, it has a lot to feel proud about. The country has built up a dynamic and robust democracy and competitive economy, and has a vibrant and diverse culture.

But its continued oppression of the Palestinian people and failure to reach a rapprochement with Syria and Lebanon undermine these achievements. Israel, whose people pride themselves on their sense of justice, could edge closer to a fairer reality by mending fences with Syria.

With the Palestinian track deadlocked, focusing on the relatively straightforward Syrian front makes sense, and a deal with Syria can, in turn, spark a virtuous circle that can help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As even Henry Kissinger, a good friend of Israel's, put it: “No war is possible without Egypt and no peace is possible without Syria.”

And now is the right moment to take the peaceful road to Damascus. With the Arab world at the readiest it has ever been to reach a compromise, Israel has a historic opportunity to integrate itself gradually into the region but, ironically, it has reacted to the Arabs' more accommodating stance by becoming more confrontational and aggressive.

It would be pure folly to squander these opportunities, which are few and far between in this bitter conflict. Although Syria has a reputation in Israel as the most unbending and uncompromising of its adversaries, the conflict on that front could have been resolved half a century ago.

Between 1951 and 1953, Adib Shishakli, the then leader of Syria, which was smarting from the 1948 defeat, strove to strike a peace deal with Israel in order to focus his energy on internal reform and the country's development.

Despite the opposition of leading Israeli military figures – who in Moshe Dayan's own words were following a strategy of expanding Israel's borders by “snatching bits of territory” – the high level secret talks reached a promising conclusion in May 1953, but faced too much opposition in the Israeli cabinet.

What if Israel and Syria, the country with the greatest ideological opposition to Zionism, had struck a peace deal back in 1953? Could war have been averted in 1967 and 1973? Could a viable Palestinian state have emerged alongside Israel and a compromise over the refugee problem have been reached? Could Israel have become a full citizen of the by now? Could the Arab countries have retained more of their Jewish populations? We will never know.

In 1953, one of the main saboteurs of the embryonic peace deal was an obscure water expert by the name of Simha Blass. And the vexed issue of water has been a swirling undercurrent of the Arab-Israeli conflict that has repeatedly smashed the prospects of peace against the rocks.

One of the main reasons behind the collapse of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in 2000 was access to the Sea of Galilee, the inland lake where the river Jordan fetches up and which supplies the bulk of Israel's water. According to Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Mualem, Israeli negotiators have agreed to return the Golan Heights down to the eastern coast of the lake, which, if true, removes a major stumbling block.

In addition, pragmatism on the part of Israel – which receives the vast majority of the Jordan basin's water resources while Syria and Lebanon only receive 5% of their needs from it – could ensure that water no longer becomes a cause of volatility. A more equitable division of the areas water resources, which need to be seen as a commonwealth between Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, could pay huge dividends.

Rather than facing water shortages, this could actually prove to be a boon for the country. Israel is a global leader in desalination technology and is home to the world's largest desalination plant.

If the European Union and the pledge, as part of a peace settlement, to help further develop and roll out this promising, and increasingly inexpensive, technology to all the countries in the region, water shortages could be averted and an underdeveloped economic sector bolstered.

Over the coming months, opponents of peace with Syria will deploy all the tried and tested (not to mention, tired) arguments. They will point to Syria's close ties with Iran and its support of Hizbullah and Hamas as proof of the country's sinister intentions.

But there is little reason to doubt the sincerity of the Syrian desire to bury the hatchet and enjoy the dividends of peace. The country is internationally isolated and wishes to come in from the cold. While it will never become a western client state, nor should it be expected to, a peace agreement will undoubtedly bring covert, low-level hostilities to an end – especially if a settlement with the Palestinians follows soon after – and will empower the moderates to build further bridges towards normalisation.

Not so long ago, the Levant was practically borderless and people crisscrossed it freely. Once upon a time, trains ran from Jaffa/Tel Aviv to Damascus and Beirut. Perhaps soon the political abyss will narrow enough for people to be able to do that again.

Read my appeal to Syria.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 14 August 2008. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual . Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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