‘Annals of National Security’
The Obama Administration’s chance to engage in a Middle East peace
by Seymour M. Hersh
April 6, 2009
When the Israelis’ controversial twenty-two-day military campaign in Gaza ended, on January 18th, it also seemed to end the promising peace talks between Israel and Syria. The two countries had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations through intermediaries in Istanbul. Many complicated technical matters had been resolved, and there were agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations. The consensus, as an ambassador now serving in Tel Aviv put it, was that the two sides had been “a lot closer than you might think.”
At an Arab summit in Qatar in mid-January, however, Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, angrily declared that Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the resulting civilian deaths showed that the Israelis spoke only “the language of blood.” He called on the Arab world to boycott Israel, close any Israeli embassies in the region, and sever all “direct or indirect ties with Israel.” Syria, Assad said, had ended its talks over the Golan Heights.
Nonetheless, a few days after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, Assad said in an e-mail to me that although Israel was “doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace,” he was still very interested in closing the deal. “We have to wait a little while to see how things will evolve and how the situation will change,” Assad said. “We still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.”
American and foreign government officials, intelligence officers, diplomats, and politicians said in interviews that renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights are now highly likely, despite Gaza and the elections in Israel in February, which left the Likud Party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the head of a coalition that includes both the far right and Labor. Those talks would depend largely on America’s willingness to act as the mediator, a role that could offer Barack Obama his first—and perhaps best—chance for engagement in the Middle East peace process.
A senior Syrian official explained that Israel’s failure to unseat Hamas from power in Gaza, despite the scale of the war, gave Assad enough political room to continue the negotiations without losing credibility in the Arab world. Assad also has the support of Arab leaders who are invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,* the ruler of Qatar, said last month when I saw him in Doha that Assad must take any reasonable steps he can to keep the talks going. “Syria is eager to engage with the West,” he said, “an eagerness that was never perceived by the Bush White House. Anything is possible, as long as peace is being pursued.”
A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way. “The return of the Golan Heights is part of a broader strategy for peace in the Middle East that includes countering Iran’s influence,” Martin Indyk, a former American Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, said. “Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don’t forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once said.”