Regardless of what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes, or how he may perceive the requirements for peace with Syria, there will be no peace unless the Golan Heights are returned to the Syrians.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad insists on resuming the negotiations where they were left off between former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who basically conceded the return of the Golan. Mr. Netanyahu, on the other hand, demands that negotiations restart without preconditions. His goal is to hold onto the plateau at all costs. These different positions are not only the reason for the stalled negotiations but also a point of departure between Israel and Syria that could lead either to war or to peace.
Netanyahu must ask himself what could motivate Syria to make peace without getting the Golan. The answer is simple - nothing. The Syrians have lived in a state of war with Israel for five decades and they are willing to live another 50 years without peace. Since the end of the cold war, the political and military dynamics in the Middle East have changed. Syria's desire for peace is now largely based on the premise that it can't recover the Golan by military means. If peace brings economic prosperity and a greater sense of security, then Assad will pursue it - but never at the cost of forsaking the Golan. To that end, the Syrian people have been persuaded to accept peace, but peace with dignity. For Syria, only a peace that restores the Golan can provide that dignity, especially since Egypt regained every inch of the territory it lost to Israel.
Like Netanyahu, Mr. Rabin thought he could negotiate "peace for peace" with Syria without giving up the Golan, but soon after he entered negotiations in earnest he realized that only the recovery of the Golan matters for the Syrians. Rabin's verbal agreement to give up all of the Golan was not made without grave security concerns on his part. He quickly learned, however, that the alternative was a continuing cycle of violence that would demand endless sacrifices - something his nation was unwilling to make.
Netanyahu is playing a game based on an illusion. He is convinced he can make peace with Syria without surrendering the Golan. If his current position is not simply a tactic, then at best he must be misguided, and at worst dangerously misinformed. Israel and Syria missed a great opportunity to make peace when the Labor Party was in power. Israeli and Syrian sources confirm that a peace agreement could have been concluded by September and presented to the Israeli electorate had Peres not opted for early elections.
Both sides may now have to pay a higher price for not seizing the opportunity. However, having heeded the Israeli national temper following the spate of suicide bombings and the Israeli election results, Assad is more ready to listen to Israel's legitimate security requirements. That means that there is still a basis for agreement with Israel.
Netanyahu, having won office with a mandate to achieve peace with security, may be in a better position than his predecessors to exact greater concessions from Syria. Netanyahu can ask for, and indeed must receive, iron-clad security measures, including demilitarization of the Golan. He should also demand that Syria rein in anti-Israeli violence while negotiations proceed. He can press Syria to negotiate an equitable distribution of waters. He can demand normalization of relations, including trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges. He can insist on a phased withdrawal over two or three years. He may even attempt to limit Israeli withdrawal to the international borders rather than a return to the June 4, 1967, cease-fire lines demanded by Syria - which would give Israel only a few kilometers of territorial depth eastward.
Recent Syrian redeployment of troops in Lebanon and in the demilitarized zone on the Golan may have been designed to pressure Israel to make unilateral concessions. Perhaps Assad is sending a message to Netanyahu to talk peace instead of issuing threats and thereby risking the prospect of war. The redeployment may also be intended to prepare the infrastructure for future military options, should diplomatic efforts fail. It may be that Assad is concerned that Israel could launch a military campaign against the Party of God (Hizbullah) in southern Lebanon, or that he is waging psychological warfare to test Israeli public reaction to the threat of war.
Whatever motivated the redeployment, one thing is clear: Netanyahu does not hold all the cards. Assad is capable of destabilizing the region to force outside intervention, and violence could erupt sooner rather than later if Syria's hope for real dialogue is dashed. If he chooses war, Assad knows he can't win against Israel and could suffer tremendous losses, but he also realizes that he can inflict unacceptable levels of pain and anguish on the Israelis and rob them of the fruits of peace with the rest of the Arab states. The recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians show how fragile the peace process can be.
Given the current makeup of his right-wing coalition government, it is unlikely Netanyahu could now resume negotiations with Syria if withdrawal from the Golan were placed on the negotiating table. Yet resume the talks he must, and sooner or later find the right avenue to talk about full peace for full withdrawal from the Golan.
To that end Netanyahu may have to turn for partnership to the Labor Party. Peres and Labor's rising star, Ehud Barak, will surely accommodate him. It will not be the first time that Likud and Labor have joined forces, and this time they would do so for the sake of the nation.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the New School for Social Research in New York.