Don't Forget the Israeli-Syria Track
Signs recalling 1967 warn against another 'accidental' war
Since August we have witnessed troop movements along the Israeli-Syrian border, major military maneuvers based on offensive scenarios, and threats by officials in Syria, Egypt, and Israel regarding the potential for, and consequences of, another Arab-Israeli war. If the hands-off policy of the Clinton administration toward the Israeli-Syrian peacemaking track is not changed very soon, the US may bear at least some of the burden of such a war.Skip to next paragraph
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The prospects for conflict stem from a continued stalemate in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, an unintended escalation of tensions owing to statements and actions by the parties to deter each other from attacking, and a general breakdown of the peace process in the region.
By February 1996, Israel and Syria reached a series of understandings that were summarized in the American "nonpaper." Both Israel and Syria, each for its own reasons, refused to sign the "non-paper," but they did not challenge its substantive points. Israel agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights it seized in 1967. Syria did not challenge the paragraphs calling for full normalization and equal but not symmetrical security arrangements on the Golan Heights and beyond.
The last elections in Israel placed negotiations in deep freeze. Not only did Benjamin Netanyahu, the new prime minister, reject the Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace and security arrangements, but he also abandoned the "Land for Peace" principle as a whole. Interviewed in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Mr. Netanyahu stated: "When we get into negotiations [with Syria] our demands would be equivalent to those of Syria, if they demand the entire Golan Heights, so shall we."
Violation of understandings
From a Syrian perspective this position represents a violation of understandings that took four years to accomplish. If no change takes place in the Israeli position very soon, Syria may conclude that its peace strategy has exhausted itself. A war strategy may not become more attractive, but it may well emerge as the only viable hope of putting the peace process back on track.
Another scenario concerns the possibility of an inadvertent or accidental war. Statements by Netanyahu and his defense minister, regarding a potential confrontation in Lebanon, led to Syrian troop movements, which were reciprocated by Israeli forces.
In recent weeks Israeli and Syrian officials have made both threatening and reassuring statements. However, in strategic dialogues, threats receive considerably more credence than reassurances. They are reminiscent of the war of words that escalated into the accidental 1967 Arab-Israeli war. A difference is that now the possibility of a non-conventional war could no longer be excluded, as the Syrian ambassador to Cairo stated on Nov. 27.
The outbreak of a war in the present political climate would rally the Arab world behind the anti-Israeli flag, with all the military, economic, and political implications of such a process.
Despite the gravity of the situation, and despite repeated warnings by both US officials and intelligence agencies in the region, the Clinton administration is taking a business-as-usual attitude toward the Israeli-Syrian tensions. The quick reaction of the administration following the outbreak of violence in the occupied territories in September represents a stark contrast to the calm and seemingly indifferent attitude of the administration toward the Israeli-Syrian confrontation. Dennis Ross, the special US envoy to the Middle East, has spent weeks in the region trying to facilitate a Hebron redeployment, but there has been no official visit to Damascus, the Syrian capital, since July. No real effort was made by US officials to renew negotiations. At best, US ambassadors in the region served as delivery boys for reassuring messages.