Golan Heights in Return for Peace

Syria has confirmed that peace talks are currently taking place between Damascus and Tel Aviv. In return for peace, Israel offered the Syrians the prospect of withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But what are the chances that the two sides will actually reach an agreement? Khaula Saleh asked Middle East expert Patrick Müller for his views

How do you assess the chances for a peaceful solution and what price would each side be willing to pay for a treaty?

Patrick Müller: First off, I have to say that it's interesting news in several respects that contacts between Israel and Syria are intensifying. In general, there is always a tendency on the Israeli side to switch negotiation channels or revive old ones when things are not working out on a different front. Ever since the conference in Annapolis in November 2007, talks have been underway between Israel and Palestine. It could be that they're not going well and that for this reason it was decided to give Syria a try.

As far as the chance of reaching an agreement is concerned, I'd say that at present it's not so much the open disputes between Israel and Syria that are making it hard to find a solution. Instead, it's the current political environment: the USA is skeptical about negotiating with Syria. Syria also has close relations with Iran, which doesn't always behave very constructively in the region – this can be considered one of the critical points.

A peace agreement might look something like the one Bill Clinton proposed or outlined in 2000: the 1967 border after the Six-Day War would be applied. This would mean that Israel would have to give back the Golan Heights to Syria. In return, Syria would have to shore up security in the region to ensure peace, militarizing the border area for example, and setting up early warning stations on Mount Hermon. And of course, it would have to recognize Israel as a state – a mutual recognition and the commencement of friendly, normalized relations.

This kind of agreement would certainly have an effect on the conflict between Lebanon and Palestine, wouldn't it?

Müller: One would of course hope and expect that to be the case. As we know, the Syrian leadership has a considerable influence on both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In the case of Lebanon, the Syrians are naturally closely allied with the pro-Syrian camp grouped around the Shiite Hezbollah Party. A constructive attitude on the part of the Syrian leaders toward the political debate within Lebanon would be desirable for guaranteeing a sovereign Lebanon. In Palestine, the connections between Syria and the Islamic Hamas movement are very strong, and a peace agreement with Syria would lead to hopes that it would also behave constructively in this relationship.

According to Jimmy Carter, Hamas would be willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders if a majority of the Palestinian people would agree to this. In your opinion, does this mean that Hamas is now at least indirectly acknowledging Israel's right to exist – and is perhaps even becoming a "peace partner"?

Müller: We can perhaps say here first of all that, since its election victory in January 2006, Hamas has moderated its position with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in important points, but it has not yet explicitly or pointedly met the conditions the Quartet on the Middle East has stipulated for cooperation. In particular, it has not yet officially recognized the Israel of 1967. Whether Hamas will be ready to take this step any time in the future cannot be said for sure. What one might perhaps say is that the isolation policy the West and Israel have espoused toward Hamas in the Gaza Strip to date – and toward the Gaza Strip itself – has placed a great burden on those who live there and has certainly not helped persuade Hamas to take a more moderate stance. This is evident from developments in the Gaza Strip over the last few months.

Jimmy Carter says there is no doubt "that both the Arab world and the Palestinians, including Hamas, will accept Israel's right to live in peace within the 1967 borders." Do you think this statement really reflects the majority opinion of the Hamas leadership? That would be a breakthrough ...

Müller: That would certainly be a decisive breakthrough. Whether it reflects the majority opinion of the Hamas leaders cannot be said for sure. What we can read into this, though, is that the Hamas leaders have also sent some positive signals now and again and that it would therefore be opportune to conduct a stronger dialogue with them, coming from the side of the international community as well – in order to see to what extent this movement is actually capable of peace.

Bashar Assad in Turkey (photo: AP)
The current political environment is making it hard to find a solution: The USA is skeptical about negotiating with Syria

​​Should the recognition of Israel's right to exist and the repudiation of violence be pre-conditions for talks with Hamas? Or is greater flexibility called for here on the part of Israel and the Americans?

Müller: This question can perhaps be answered best if we make a distinction between negotiations and dialogue. I think that peace negotiations with Hamas, especially from Israel's point of view, would be difficult and probably would not make much sense as long as Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, and thus its status as negotiation partner. In terms of initiating a dialogue, however, I would say that it is very important for the international community to take a more flexible position and to actually conduct such a dialogue. Boycotts and isolating the Hamas in the Gaza Strip come at a high cost and contribute neither to greater moderation on the part of the Hamas movement, nor to the loss of faith in the Hamas leadership on the part of the Gaza Strip's population.

On the contrary, the people there usually see Israel and also the international community as being responsible for their misery, not Hamas. The isolation policy is not very efficient, exacts a high price, does not accomplish much and therefore does not by any means do justice to the strategy of the international community and the hopes tied to it.

The interview was conducted by Khaula Saleh.

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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