Commentary Magazine


Topic: Golan Heights

ANNAPOLIS: There Has to Be Something to It, Right?

Over the past few weeks, consensus has continually held that little should be expected from the Annapolis conference, which opens tomorrow. Op-ed after op-ed and poll after poll have dictated that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too weak, if not too far apart in their positions, for any meaningful progress towards peace to take place.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion that Annapolis is little more than an impressive photo op with the serious diplomatic capital that Arab states have invested in it. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced that it would send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, marking the first time that the Saudis are participating in talks with Israelis present. Representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen will also participate. Indeed, the Annapolis conference has achieved such profound legitimacy that Syria—believing that it risked regional isolation by not attending—announced that it would send its deputy foreign minister.

How can we explain this broad participation in a conference doomed to failure? Below, I weigh the compelling and insufficient aspects of three possibilities that have been tossed around in recent weeks:

1. It’s all about Iran. As David Brooks argued a few weeks ago, the Israeli-Palestinian focus of this conference is a proxy for creating a regional consensus for confronting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Compelling because of the broad (Sunni) Arab participation in the conference. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite Crescent” of regional Iranian influence, running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hizballah), and the Palestinian Authority (Hamas); Sunni unity—sponsored by a U.S.-led peace effort—provides a possible diplomatic antidote. Meanwhile, Israel has embraced strong Arab participation, even though this will increase pressure for concessions. This implies that Israel’s priorities lie with countering Iran, perhaps at the expense of other cards it holds.

Insufficient because a conference that cannot actually deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot create regional consensus around Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is necessary to foster and support any long-term regional strategy against Iran. Moreover, is Syria so desperate for the return of the Golan Heights that it would spurn its historic ties with Iran—particularly at the moment that Iran is most regionally ascendant?

2. It’s aimed at achieving broad consensus on Israeli-Palestinian peace to legitimize final status negotiations. The International Crisis Group, one of the few think tanks to take a mildly optimistic view of Annapolis, has argued that Annapolis should be a platform for deliberation on final status issues, with Arab engagement exchanged for Israeli concessions.

Compelling because the Bush administration emphasized the discussion of final status issues in its successful effort to lure Arab states to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called for a final settlement before the expiration of Bush’s term. Furthermore, broad Arab consensus for such a settlement might undermine Hamas’s rejection of peace efforts.

Insufficient because Arab political unity has had little bearing on Arab public opinion in recent years: contrast Arab governments’ condemnation of Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war with the popularization that followed throughout the region of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Moreover, public opinion has hardly constrained Hamas, which seized control in Gaza this past June with little Palestinian public support. If Hamas responds to (the highly unlikely) Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with another takeover, as Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas recently announced, Arab unity will prove impotent once again.

3. The Bush administration is using the Annapolis conference to shore up its legacy. Numerous American dailies attribute the Bush administration’s pursuit of the Annapolis conference to the “legacy” issue, while Dov Weissglas, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, believes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “led by the desire to get a Nobel Prize.”

Compelling because the Bush administration arguably has dedicated more attention to the Middle East than any previous presidency, with few concrete successes. Democratization efforts have stalled or failed in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; Iraq is improving but remains unstable; Iran is ascendant; and American popularity in the Middle East is at an all time low. Israeli-Palestinian peace might provide one last chance at securing a favorable legacy in foreign affairs.

Insufficient because psychoanalysis is no substitute for policy analysis.

Over the past few weeks, consensus has continually held that little should be expected from the Annapolis conference, which opens tomorrow. Op-ed after op-ed and poll after poll have dictated that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too weak, if not too far apart in their positions, for any meaningful progress towards peace to take place.

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the notion that Annapolis is little more than an impressive photo op with the serious diplomatic capital that Arab states have invested in it. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced that it would send Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, marking the first time that the Saudis are participating in talks with Israelis present. Representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen will also participate. Indeed, the Annapolis conference has achieved such profound legitimacy that Syria—believing that it risked regional isolation by not attending—announced that it would send its deputy foreign minister.

How can we explain this broad participation in a conference doomed to failure? Below, I weigh the compelling and insufficient aspects of three possibilities that have been tossed around in recent weeks:

1. It’s all about Iran. As David Brooks argued a few weeks ago, the Israeli-Palestinian focus of this conference is a proxy for creating a regional consensus for confronting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Compelling because of the broad (Sunni) Arab participation in the conference. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite Crescent” of regional Iranian influence, running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (Hizballah), and the Palestinian Authority (Hamas); Sunni unity—sponsored by a U.S.-led peace effort—provides a possible diplomatic antidote. Meanwhile, Israel has embraced strong Arab participation, even though this will increase pressure for concessions. This implies that Israel’s priorities lie with countering Iran, perhaps at the expense of other cards it holds.

Insufficient because a conference that cannot actually deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot create regional consensus around Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is necessary to foster and support any long-term regional strategy against Iran. Moreover, is Syria so desperate for the return of the Golan Heights that it would spurn its historic ties with Iran—particularly at the moment that Iran is most regionally ascendant?

2. It’s aimed at achieving broad consensus on Israeli-Palestinian peace to legitimize final status negotiations. The International Crisis Group, one of the few think tanks to take a mildly optimistic view of Annapolis, has argued that Annapolis should be a platform for deliberation on final status issues, with Arab engagement exchanged for Israeli concessions.

Compelling because the Bush administration emphasized the discussion of final status issues in its successful effort to lure Arab states to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called for a final settlement before the expiration of Bush’s term. Furthermore, broad Arab consensus for such a settlement might undermine Hamas’s rejection of peace efforts.

Insufficient because Arab political unity has had little bearing on Arab public opinion in recent years: contrast Arab governments’ condemnation of Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon war with the popularization that followed throughout the region of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Moreover, public opinion has hardly constrained Hamas, which seized control in Gaza this past June with little Palestinian public support. If Hamas responds to (the highly unlikely) Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with another takeover, as Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas recently announced, Arab unity will prove impotent once again.

3. The Bush administration is using the Annapolis conference to shore up its legacy. Numerous American dailies attribute the Bush administration’s pursuit of the Annapolis conference to the “legacy” issue, while Dov Weissglas, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, believes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is “led by the desire to get a Nobel Prize.”

Compelling because the Bush administration arguably has dedicated more attention to the Middle East than any previous presidency, with few concrete successes. Democratization efforts have stalled or failed in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; Iraq is improving but remains unstable; Iran is ascendant; and American popularity in the Middle East is at an all time low. Israeli-Palestinian peace might provide one last chance at securing a favorable legacy in foreign affairs.

Insufficient because psychoanalysis is no substitute for policy analysis.

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Why Try?

Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State’s job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel’s destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a “hostile entity.” Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.

Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for “peace.”

Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice’s most recent trip to the Holy Land: “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide.” The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps she has been told that this is what Arab states expect, that the U.S. should go through the motions even if the chances of success are scant. But aren’t there bigger issues than Israel to engage her attention? Perhaps she should be doing more to pressure American allies such as Germany to cut off economic ties with a regime in Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State’s job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel’s destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a “hostile entity.” Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.

Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for “peace.”

Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice’s most recent trip to the Holy Land: “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide.” The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps she has been told that this is what Arab states expect, that the U.S. should go through the motions even if the chances of success are scant. But aren’t there bigger issues than Israel to engage her attention? Perhaps she should be doing more to pressure American allies such as Germany to cut off economic ties with a regime in Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

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Who Won the Second Lebanon War?

Who won last summer’s Lebanon war, Israel or Hizballah? A year after combat ceased that question remains hotly controverted. If nothing else, the continuing debate is testimony to the ambiguous nature of the outcome between one of the world’s most powerful armies and the rag-tag Islamic militia that it faced.

Since neither side suffered a knock-out blow, what indicators, short of total defeat and surrender, can be employed to evaluate the conflict? Because Hizballah was fighting a rocket war, firing a variety of projectiles into Israel’s north, one key question that must be posed is: how effective was Hizballah’s rocket campaign, and how effective was Israel’s response?

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Who won last summer’s Lebanon war, Israel or Hizballah? A year after combat ceased that question remains hotly controverted. If nothing else, the continuing debate is testimony to the ambiguous nature of the outcome between one of the world’s most powerful armies and the rag-tag Islamic militia that it faced.

Since neither side suffered a knock-out blow, what indicators, short of total defeat and surrender, can be employed to evaluate the conflict? Because Hizballah was fighting a rocket war, firing a variety of projectiles into Israel’s north, one key question that must be posed is: how effective was Hizballah’s rocket campaign, and how effective was Israel’s response?

One exceedingly well-researched answer comes from Uzi Rubin, who served as the first director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization in the 1990’s, where he managed development of the Arrow missile-defense system.

The picture that emerges from Rubin’s analysis is of an Islamic militia force that was astonishingly well prepared for the conflict, and which had thought carefully about matching means and ends. Even if Hizballah’s head, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, had misjudged the scope and scale of Israel’s response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Hizballah’s basic approach was vindicated by the course of the fighting.

“[I]t can now be seen,” writes Rubin, that Hizballah had “devised a two-pronged strategy to overturn Israel’s predominance in terms of manpower, machinery, and technology.” In the first prong, “massive rocket fire was used against Israel’s homeland in order to provoke Israel into launching a ground offensive.” In the second prong, “well-entrenched defense in depth was employed in order to defeat the ground offensive.”

In other words, Hizballah, “aimed to bait Israel into entering its carefully laid trap with rocket fire.” The key for Israel would have been successfully suppressing the rocket fire that for 33 days rained destruction on its north, thereby avoiding having to pay the “butcher’s bill” for an incursion on the ground.

But even as the Israeli air force succeeded in destroying most if not all of Hizballah’s longer-range missiles, it was unable to deal with the short-range ones. On the final day of the war, to demonstrate that it had preserved quite a few arrows in its quiver, and that its lines of communication had survived Israel’s best destructive efforts, Hizballah launched a coordinated salvo, hurling a record 232 rockets over the Lebanese border at one time.

What can be learned from the war? Israel’s adversaries are certainly studying it carefully. Rubin notes that the outcome

may well prompt the Palestinian factions to intensify their already ongoing rocket attacks against southern Israel, both in terms of quality and quantity. Hamas in Gaza is already stocking up on longer-range rockets, and may well adapt the Hizballah’s two-pronged strategy. Syria, a patron of the Hizballah with its own vast stockpile of rockets and ballistic missiles, might be tempted to devise a doctrine of attrition by rocket and missile fire instead of a full-scale, 1973-style invasion, to gain back the Golan Heights.

Israel has been studying the conflict, too. The most obvious lesson, as Rubin writes, is that “[a]s long as simple, unsophisticated, cheaply produced rockets cannot be overcome, they are now and will remain in the future a veritable strategic threat to Israel’s national security.”

What is to be done to counter this strategic threat? Click here to learn about MTHEL. It is not a silver bullet, but one vital component of a successful Israeli response.

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Common Ground with Syria?

On the heels of my last post about Israeli-Syrian negotiations comes Michael Oren’s op-ed in the January 24 New York Times, “What if Israel and Syria Find Common Ground?” In this opinion piece, Oren—author of the best-selling Six Days of War (reviewed in COMMENTARY by Victor Davis Hanson) and the new Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (reviewed in January’s COMMENTARY by me)—recommends that Israel make peace with Syria even if this means “forfeiting the Golan Heights” and initiating “a clash between Israel and Washington.”

Frankly, Oren, who has always been something of a hawk when it comes to Israeli-Arab relations, startles me. The surprise lies not so much in his readiness for Israel to “clash” with Washington, even though this is nothing to be made light of. Rather, it lies in his endorsing the argument that it is worth giving in to Syrian demands on the Golan because, as he put it in the Times, this would “invariably provide for the cessation of Syrian aid to Hamas and Hizballah.” More “crucial still,” he writes, “by detaching Syria from Iran’s orbit,” such a concession would enable Israel to “address the Iranian nuclear threat—perhaps by military means—without fear of retribution from Syrian ground forces and missiles.”

Let’s assume for the moment that Oren is right and that Syria can be bribed into ditching Hizballah, Iran, and Hamas by giving it back the Golan. Does this mean that the Israeli air force can then attack Iran’s nuclear installations with impunity? Hardly. Even if Israel does not have to worry about Syrian missiles and ground forces, it will still have to worry about Hizballah and Iranian missiles, as well as about the possible failure of its air attack, not to mention strongly condemnatory international reaction. And what if the United States attacks Iran first, in which case Syria would be highly unlikely to get involved even without the gift of the Golan? And how does Oren know how Syria will behave once it has the Golan back and is sitting on the Sea of Galilee and the cliffs overlooking northern Israel, or what unexpected political developments in Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East) may take place five or ten years from now, or how the message that Israel is ready to cede territory for short-term gains will be interpreted by the Palestinians and the Arab world?

Land is an unchanging asset; it never loses its value. Political developments are contingent and unpredictable. To give up the unchanging for the contingent and the certain for the unpredictable is never a good idea, quite apart from the strong historical, legal, and moral claim that Israel has on the Golan. It’s not fear of clashing with Washington that should keep it from surrendering the Heights, but fear of compromising its own most vital interests.

On the heels of my last post about Israeli-Syrian negotiations comes Michael Oren’s op-ed in the January 24 New York Times, “What if Israel and Syria Find Common Ground?” In this opinion piece, Oren—author of the best-selling Six Days of War (reviewed in COMMENTARY by Victor Davis Hanson) and the new Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (reviewed in January’s COMMENTARY by me)—recommends that Israel make peace with Syria even if this means “forfeiting the Golan Heights” and initiating “a clash between Israel and Washington.”

Frankly, Oren, who has always been something of a hawk when it comes to Israeli-Arab relations, startles me. The surprise lies not so much in his readiness for Israel to “clash” with Washington, even though this is nothing to be made light of. Rather, it lies in his endorsing the argument that it is worth giving in to Syrian demands on the Golan because, as he put it in the Times, this would “invariably provide for the cessation of Syrian aid to Hamas and Hizballah.” More “crucial still,” he writes, “by detaching Syria from Iran’s orbit,” such a concession would enable Israel to “address the Iranian nuclear threat—perhaps by military means—without fear of retribution from Syrian ground forces and missiles.”

Let’s assume for the moment that Oren is right and that Syria can be bribed into ditching Hizballah, Iran, and Hamas by giving it back the Golan. Does this mean that the Israeli air force can then attack Iran’s nuclear installations with impunity? Hardly. Even if Israel does not have to worry about Syrian missiles and ground forces, it will still have to worry about Hizballah and Iranian missiles, as well as about the possible failure of its air attack, not to mention strongly condemnatory international reaction. And what if the United States attacks Iran first, in which case Syria would be highly unlikely to get involved even without the gift of the Golan? And how does Oren know how Syria will behave once it has the Golan back and is sitting on the Sea of Galilee and the cliffs overlooking northern Israel, or what unexpected political developments in Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East) may take place five or ten years from now, or how the message that Israel is ready to cede territory for short-term gains will be interpreted by the Palestinians and the Arab world?

Land is an unchanging asset; it never loses its value. Political developments are contingent and unpredictable. To give up the unchanging for the contingent and the certain for the unpredictable is never a good idea, quite apart from the strong historical, legal, and moral claim that Israel has on the Golan. It’s not fear of clashing with Washington that should keep it from surrendering the Heights, but fear of compromising its own most vital interests.

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Backroom Dealing on the Golan

Whether the back-channel “Israeli-Syrian negotiations” whose existence was revealed last week (and expanded upon Sunday) by the Hebrew daily Haaretz were, in fact, as claimed by the newspaper, really government-level talks, or whether they were simply an exchange between two private individuals, ex-director general of Israel’s foreign ministry Alon Liel and Washington-based Syrian businessman Ibrahim Suleiman, is largely an artificial question. Both governments knew of the talks, which reportedly involved an offer on Liel’s part for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the pre-Six Day war lines of June 4, 1967, and both, even if they took no active role in them, could have put a stop to them had they wanted to. They didn’t. Governments that encourage such unofficial mediation are not necessarily committed to its results, but neither are they uninterested in them.

That a government of Israel would consider, as several Israeli governments have done, a withdrawal from the entire Golan in return for a peace agreement with Syria that may or may not be honored in the long run is all but incomprehensible. That an Israeli government would consider withdrawing to the lines of June 4, 1967, at which time the Syrian army was illegally occupying several dozen square kilometers of territory along the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River that were officially part of Israel, is wholly incomprehensible.

There are many excellent reasons why Israel should never cede the whole Golan to Syria—military factors, water rights, tourism, national pride, the untrustworthiness of Syrian intentions, the unpredictability of Syrian politics, and the Golan’s having been officially annexed by Israel in 1982, thus making it as much a part of the country as is Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But of all possible reasons, none is so logically absurd to overlook as the fact that, by repeatedly demanding an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 lines, Syria has also repeatedly repudiated the 1923 border between it and Palestine drawn by the then-occupying colonial powers of France and England—the only Israeli-Syrian frontier ever recognized by international law. That a succession of Israeli governments has nevertheless continued to regard this border as a starting point for negotiations with Syria instead of trumpeting Syria’s own, repeated repudiation of it is, to my mind, one of the greatest stupidities of Israeli diplomacy.

Whether the back-channel “Israeli-Syrian negotiations” whose existence was revealed last week (and expanded upon Sunday) by the Hebrew daily Haaretz were, in fact, as claimed by the newspaper, really government-level talks, or whether they were simply an exchange between two private individuals, ex-director general of Israel’s foreign ministry Alon Liel and Washington-based Syrian businessman Ibrahim Suleiman, is largely an artificial question. Both governments knew of the talks, which reportedly involved an offer on Liel’s part for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the pre-Six Day war lines of June 4, 1967, and both, even if they took no active role in them, could have put a stop to them had they wanted to. They didn’t. Governments that encourage such unofficial mediation are not necessarily committed to its results, but neither are they uninterested in them.

That a government of Israel would consider, as several Israeli governments have done, a withdrawal from the entire Golan in return for a peace agreement with Syria that may or may not be honored in the long run is all but incomprehensible. That an Israeli government would consider withdrawing to the lines of June 4, 1967, at which time the Syrian army was illegally occupying several dozen square kilometers of territory along the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River that were officially part of Israel, is wholly incomprehensible.

There are many excellent reasons why Israel should never cede the whole Golan to Syria—military factors, water rights, tourism, national pride, the untrustworthiness of Syrian intentions, the unpredictability of Syrian politics, and the Golan’s having been officially annexed by Israel in 1982, thus making it as much a part of the country as is Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But of all possible reasons, none is so logically absurd to overlook as the fact that, by repeatedly demanding an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 lines, Syria has also repeatedly repudiated the 1923 border between it and Palestine drawn by the then-occupying colonial powers of France and England—the only Israeli-Syrian frontier ever recognized by international law. That a succession of Israeli governments has nevertheless continued to regard this border as a starting point for negotiations with Syria instead of trumpeting Syria’s own, repeated repudiation of it is, to my mind, one of the greatest stupidities of Israeli diplomacy.

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