Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel-Syria Talks Resume/ Lebanon's Doha Agreement

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Update from AIJAC

May 23, 2008
Number 05/08 #09


As readers will be aware, Israel and Syria officially announced the resumption of peace talks this week, mediated by Turkey. Meanwhile, following last week's violent confrontation whereby Hezbollah took over much of Beirut, Lebanon's factions agreed to a  Qatari-mediated deal, known as the Doha Accord. The agreement gives Hezbollah much of what it sought, including a veto over all government decisions. (The text of the actual Doha agreement is here.) This Update includes analysis of both these developments.

First up, Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency speaks to several experts, including David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, about why Israeli-Syrian talks have broken out now. Some suggest a reduced willingness to accommodate US reluctance to see such public talks now, plus, paradoxically, the success in Lebanon of Syria's client, Hezbollah, as reasons. It is suggested that Damascus has some discomfort with Hezbollah's growing power, despite the intense support Syria has generally offered. For more discussion of the reasons for and implications of the Syria-Israel talks announcement, CLICK HERE. Also see some explanation for the decision to have official talks from Israeli PM Ehud Olmert here. Meanwhile, in a bad sign for the future of the talks, the Syrian government is denying that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would be a "concession" and says Syria will not reduce its ties with Iran, or cut off support for Hamas and Hezbollah in return, which is the quid pro quo Israel wants.

Next up, the Jerusalem Post comments on the proposed deal, highlighting some reservations. It emphasises that while many Israelis are sceptical given the timing (which coincides with new corruption investigations into Mr Olmert) a deal with Syria would be in Israel's strategic interests. But not at any price, the paper says, and argues that if Israel is going to offer irrevocable concessions like the Golan, Syria is going to have to demonstrate that what it is offering, in the form of normalisation and reduced ties to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, will not later be revoked. For their take, CLICK HERE. More sceptical Israeli perspectives come from former UN Ambassador Dore Gold and academic Guy Bechor. Meanwhile, another lecturer, Shai Bazak predicts that no deal will be reached, while more on Israeli public scepticism is here.

Finally, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Lebanon and Syria expert David Schenker looks at the detail  and background of the Doha agreement. He also examines how decisive this win for Hezbollah is likely to be, and finds that one consequence is that Hezbollah is increasingly politically isolated in Lebanon after having turned its guns against the government and the Lebanese people. Finally, he also offers some policy suggestions for Western policymakers. To read it all, CLICK HERE.

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What's pushing old foes Israel and Syria to talk? 

By Ron Kampeas

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Published: 05/21/2008

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- The diminishing fortunes of the Bush administration and the resurgent fortunes of Hezbollah may be behind the surprising announcement that Syria and Israel are renewing peace talks.

The announcements Wednesday by the two countries, which said Israel and Syria would launch talks in Ankara under Turkish auspices, came despite longstanding U.S. opposition to talks with Syria.

The news garnered only tepid endorsement from the Bush administration.

"We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it," said Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman. "We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria -- Syria's support of terrorism, repression of its own people."

"This demonstrates that what has kept things back is the United States," said Steve Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. Bush’s “leverage is not as great -- Bush has seven-and-a-half months left."

The Bush administration long has blamed Syria for not doing enough to keep insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq and for interfering in Lebanese affairs. This month, Hezbollah militiamen backed by Iran routed the U.S.-backed Lebanese army in violent clashes in Beirut, alarming officials in the Bush administration.

Syria, analysts said, also may regard Hezbollah's recent political and military gains with alarm -- notwithstanding its longstanding alliance with the Lebanese terrorist group.

Syria's alliances in Lebanon have shifted over the decades, from the Christians in the 1970s to the Palestinians to the Sunni Muslims and, over the last decade or so, to Hezbollah's Shiite plurality in the country, noted David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But Hezbollah's growing power -- including its resurgence following the 2006 summer war with Israel, its relative strength vis-a-vis the Lebanese army and its success this week in securing a veto in the Lebanese Cabinet -- threaten to undermine the balance of power between Lebanon’s minorities that has allowed Syria to control much of Lebanon.

"Syria has been a patron of Hezbollah," Makovksy said, "but there has always been an ambivalence because it doesn’t share its Islamist orientation."

That orientation -- militant Islamic extremism -- is shared by Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas, the largely Sunni Muslim terrorist group in Gaza that with Iran’s backing has obstructed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel's defense establishment long has perceived Syria as the weak link among those groups and has advocated outreach to the Assad regime as a way of crippling Iran's influence in the region, Makovsky said.

"Unlike the Palestinian issue, where there is a sense that there is a will but not necessarily a capacity, they feel in Syria there is a central authority" to ensure the success of a peace deal, Makovsky said.

Moreover, Hezbollah’s growing strength in Lebanon, and Hamas’ persistent rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel, has made neutralizing Syrian support for those groups all the more urgent for Israel.

But the Bush administration’s reticence to embrace Syria-Israel peace talks has impeded rapprochement -- until this week, that is. The Olmert administration reportedly sought and received the green light from the Bush administration for renewing peace talks with Syria.

U.S. support for the process is key. Aside from the return of the Golan Heights from Israel, Syria would seek U.S. support and the opening of Western doors as a tradeoff for foregoing its alliances with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

A State Department official, speaking to JTA on condition of anonymity, said any Israel-Syria peace deal would require Syrian concessions in areas of concern to the United States, including tighter controls at Syria's border with Iraq and human rights reforms within Syria.

"It is our hope that discussions between Israel and Syria will cover all the relevant issues, including the Syrian government's support for terrorist groups, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq and intervention in Lebanon -- as well as repression inside Syria," the official said.

David Kimche, a former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, said negotiations will take a while, likely stretching beyond Bush’s presidency.

"These negotiations are not going to end in a week or a month; it's the beginning of long negotiations," Kimche said. "The aim is to bring the Americans in. This could be the beginning of movement, not just between Israel and Syria, but between Syria and the United States."

Kimche discounted suggestions by some Israeli politicians that Wednesday’s announcement was timed to distract the Israeli public from the investigation into Olmert’s financial dealings.

Rather, he said, Israeli and Syrian negotiators reached the point in the process where they were able to make the formal announcement.

For the Israelis, that point was Olmert agreeing to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, said Professor Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“What has changed is the Israeli position,” he said. “Olmert came to the conclusion, probably some time ago, that is in his interest and in Israel’s interest to make peace with Syria, and he is willing to give something that previous prime ministers were not. According to the Syrians, he has committed himself to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.”

That point for Syria, Makovsky said, was a readiness to consider ending its role as a conduit for arms from Iran to Hezbollah.

"You cannot have a peace deal with the Israelis and still be a conduit for weapons," Makovsky said.

Further down the line, involvement from the United States and others will be necessary, he added.

"If this is going to work, you need a lot of players to help Syria,” he said. “It's not just a local agreement.”

(JTA managing editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this report from New York.)

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Editorial: Peace for the Golan?

Jerusalem Post
May 21, 2008 20:05 | Updated May 21, 2008 20:23


It's official. Shortly after noon yesterday, the Prime Minister's Office announced that "Syria and Israel have started indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey" in search of a "comprehensive peace" based upon "the Madrid Conference terms." That reference point is significant because it was at Madrid, in 1991, that Israel accepted the principle of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Though reports that Turkey has been serving as an intermediary in secret talks between Syria and Israel have been circulating for months, Wednesday's official announcement stuns nevertheless. For it comes as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for political survival in the face of mounting investigations into alleged wrongdoing.

Yet the news that top Olmert aides Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbovitz were in Istanbul as Turkish officials shuttled between them and Syrian negotiators raises hope that Syria may join Egypt and Jordan in making peace.

It also evokes cynicism. A common reaction by politicians and citizens alike - across the political spectrum - has been the Hebrew saying which translates as: "The depth of the retreat parallels the extent of the investigation."

But let's for the moment put aside the question of the premier's possible ulterior motives. And let's, for argument's sake, forget that Olmert's popularity is at a nadir, that his governing coalition is crumbling, and that on Friday the police will again be visiting his home with more questions about money-stuffed envelopes from a man named Morris Talansky.

WHAT INTERESTS Israelis most is whether this momentum toward a deal is in the country's interest. We are troubled by reports of a Syrian announcement that Israel has already agreed to withdraw from the Heights even in the absence of direct negotiations between the sides.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we may be witnessing an extraordinary Bush administration about-face. Until recently, Washington had been signaling Jerusalem not to engage with Damascus because of Syria's treacherous roles in Iraq and Lebanon and its bond with Iran.

Then all of a sudden, according to a report Saturday in the London-based Arabic Al-Hayat daily, the US supposedly asked Turkey to increase its efforts to advance negotiations between Israel and Syria.

YET ALL this is also besides the point. For what matters most now is what Syria is offering to make a withdrawal worth Israel's while. The extent of any withdrawal must parallel the depth of the peace offered. Who wants a cold peace with a Syria which has practically melded its foreign and military policies with Iran?

For Israelis to take its overtures seriously, Damascus would have to disconnect itself totally from the Iranian mullahs. Rather than helping arm Hizbullah, Syria would have to isolate it. And not only would Syria's policy of assassinating freedom-loving Lebanese leaders have to end, Damascus would need to recognize Lebanese sovereignty and open an embassy in Beirut. Israel cannot reasonably make peace with Syria while Lebanon smolders.

A deal with Syria could also potentially bolster relative moderates among the Palestinians; but not if Syria continues to host the Hamas leadership in Damascus. From state-sponsor of terror, it would have to transform itself into strategic opponent of terror.

Nor can Israel afford a deal perceived as being with Bashar Assad's Alawite clique alone. For the complete normalization of relations integral to any treaty, we need signs that Syria is developing its civil society and political institutions, and that the Sunni majority is being socialized toward tolerance and peace by the formidable state-controlled media.

A peace treaty with Syria is in Israel's strategic interest - but not at any price. Jerusalem is being called upon to make irrevocable concessions in return for the promise of Syrian goodwill. The finer points of an accord, notably as regards access to Israel's main natural water resource, the Kinneret, will be critical. The Golan, a vital geostrategic area which offers control of northern Israel, would have to be demilitarized and trustworthy monitors put in place - but why not envision a normalization that allows Jews to continue living there?

When Bashar took over from his father, Hafez, in 2000, the London-educated, British-accented physician was portrayed as the leader who would transform an autocracy into a forward-looking polity. If he now seeks that path, and truly seeks to lead his country, and by extension the Arab world, to full normalization with Israel, we urge him, as a vital step toward persuading Israelis that we have entered an era of reconciliation, to come to the Knesset and tell us about it.

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Lebanese Crisis Ends: Hizballah Victory or Temporary Truce

By David Schenker

PolicyWatch #1375,
May 21, 2008

On May 21, after five days of mediation, Qatari officials announced a compromise solution to the Lebanese crisis between the pro-Western government and Hizballah-led opposition backed by Iran and Syria. According to preliminary reports, the negotiations centered on presidential elections and electoral reform, yet avoided the critical issue of Hizballah's weapons. Although details are still emerging, the broad outline of the agreement suggests that Hizballah has translated, at least temporarily, its May 7 military victory into a political victory. But given the potential outcome of the 2009 parliamentary elections, the Shiite group's victory may be short lived.

Background

In early May, the Lebanese government, led by the "March 14" ruling coalition, objected to Hizballah's telecommunications network and its control over Lebanon's international airport. The cabinet subsequently decided to remove the network and install an airport officer that was not sympathetic to the Shiite organization. In reaction, Hizballah cried foul and demanded that the government back down.

When the coalition stood its ground, Hizballah forces temporarily occupied Beirut. Nearly one hundred Lebanese were killed and 250 were wounded in the worst fighting since the country's fifteen-year civil war that ended in 1991. After three days of fighting -- which included Hizballah's failed attempt to storm the Shouf mountain preserve of March 14 Druze leader Walid Jumblatt -- the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) stepped in and enforced a de-escalation. However, in the face of Hizballah's overwhelming military might, and the LAF's unwillingness to protect national institutions, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his coalition capitulated to Hizballah's demands on May 14, and revoked the cabinet decisions. This constituted a humiliation for the already weak Lebanese government.

While the military operation demonstrated Hizballah's planning and operational experience, the militia's reputation was also severely diminished. By turning the arms of "the resistance" against its fellow countrymen -- something the militia swore it would never do -- Hizballah effectively undercut its regional and local legitimacy. It also ended the longstanding fiction that the Shiite party was committed to Lebanese democracy.

Perhaps the biggest loser in recent weeks, however, was Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. Although politically allied with Hizballah, he watched the fighting from the sidelines. Lebanese surveys, the 2007 by-election results, and a large body of anecdotal reporting suggest that Aoun's popularity among his Christian constituency has slipped since he signed a February 2006 memorandum of understanding with Hizballah. The occupation of Beirut was extremely unpopular among the majority of non-Shiite Lebanese, and will undoubtedly take a further toll on Aoun's political fortunes.

The Anatomy of the Deal

The Qatari-brokered deal contained four main provisions:

National unity government.
When the Siniora government was established in 2005, Hizballah controlled several key cabinet ministries. But in November 2006, the organization left the government to protest the majority's support for the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. Since then, Hizballah has demanded the formation of a "National Unity Government" -- codeword for an opposition veto (or "blocking third") -- in the Lebanese cabinet. The March 14 coalition had long resisted this demand, but in Qatar, the government agreed to give the opposition eleven of the thirty cabinet seats. With more than a third of the cabinet, the Shiite group can block major government initiatives.

Presidential elections.
For months, the Arab League was trying to broker a compromise on the Lebanese presidential elections. The post, which must be held by a Maronite Christian, has been vacant since November 2007. Months ago, a parliamentary consensus was reached to elect LAF chief of staff Michel Suleiman, but the agreement unraveled in the face of Syrian opposition, which at that time deemed him unreliable. In Qatar, Hizballah and the government agreed to immediately elect Suleiman as president. Following the LAF performance during Hizballah's May offensive, Syria and Hizballah appear to have accepted Suleiman, who was selected as chief of staff by Damascus nine years ago.

Electoral reform. A longstanding contentious issue in Lebanese politics has been electoral reform. The 2005 parliamentary elections that brought the March 14 coalition to power were conducted under a law designed by Damascus to strengthen pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon. In Qatar, Hizballah agreed to a redistricting and reapportionment of parliamentary seats in Beirut. These changes should work in favor of the March 14 coalition and to the disadvantage of Aoun. It is unclear whether the system that ultimately is adopted throughout the state will be the 1960 law or some other plan, such as that devised by former Lebanese minister of parliament Fouad Boutros. It is likely, however, that the new electoral system will not address longstanding Shiite grievances about gerrymandering that has resulted in underrepresentation in parliament -- an issue that fuels Shiite support for Hizballah.

Discussion of weapons. In the aftermath of Hizballah's "coup," the group's weaponry was a top agenda item for the government, but both the Qataris and Hizballah prevented any serious discussion on the issue. In the end, it was agreed that a national dialogue -- chaired by incoming president Suleiman -- would discuss "weapons of organizations." This "solution" suggests that nothing will be done about Hizballah's weapons anytime soon.

A Hizballah Victory?


The Doha agreement gives Hizballah its top priority -- a "blocking third" in the cabinet -- without making any real concessions on its weapons. Essentially, its modus operandi of using its military power to wrest concessions from the government was validated.

For the March 14 ruling coalition, this deal, while setting a problematic precedent, does not really change the status quo on the ground. As the May showdown with Hizballah demonstrated, even without the "blocking third," the Shiite militia is able to veto major government decisions. Hizballah's increased role in the cabinet will not change this dynamic. On the plus side, changes in the electoral law may place March 14 in a slightly better position for the May 2009 parliamentary elections.

The apportionment of cabinet seats, while not optimal, is also not as bad as it could have been. March 14 clearly mistrusts Suleiman, and as such, limited his selection of cabinet seats to three. Even if Suleiman appoints Hizballah-sympathetic ministers, the opposition will still not control a majority of the seats in cabinet, and consequently will not be able to make decisions at will. The wild card is who will be placed in charge of which ministries -- particularly defense and interior.

U.S. Policy Implications


For Washington, these developments should prompt a reevaluation of how it supports the Lebanese government. Since 2005, the administration's strategy to strengthen Beirut has been primarily to support the LAF: from 2005 to 2008, Washington provided more than $250 million in military assistance to the army, making Lebanon the second largest per capita recipient of U.S. military funding in the world. However, during the crisis, the LAF did nothing to protect the government and national institutions because of the fear that intervention would cause the army to fragment along sectarian lines. Support for the LAF is a long-term project, but will do little in the short run to help U.S. allies in Beirut.

Given the stakes, it is imperative that Washington move beyond rhetoric and develop effective measures to support its pro-Western allies. Particularly important will be ways to enhance the electoral prospects of Siniora and his political allies in advance of the 2009 parliamentary vote. In the meantime, Washington should continue to work with the Lebanese government, avoiding contact with Hizballah ministers -- but working with lower level ministry officials -- as it did in 2005-2006. In addition, the administration should find ways to highlight the emptiness of Hizballah's "resistance" rhetoric, focusing on the fact that the Iranian and Syrian-backed group used its weapons against other Lebanese. For now, civil war has been forestalled, not avoided. Washington needs to do what it can in the time before elections to see that democracy hoists Hizballah by its own petard.

David Schenker is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as the political affairs advisor for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

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