Israel needs a new school of negotiating skills

by Maskil on April 25, 2008

Israel reportedly has agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria.

Reading headlines such as this, it sometimes seems as if all Israeli politicians, leaders, diplomats and behind the scenes dealmakers attended the same school of negotiating skills. If that is the case, then I think Israel desperately needs a new school of diplomacy; one that will teach its students to first talk about our rights and demands long, long before they start talking about what we’re prepared to concede. This is important enough to repeat. Our primary message should be about what we want, the very last thing about what we’re prepared to give up.

Let’s forget for now that only a little more than six months ago, Israel was apparently forced to destroy a secret Syrian nuclear facility not intended for peaceful purposes. Let’s assume that Syria is a genuine negotiating partner in the search for peace in the Middle East. Where to from here? And where does that leave us in regard to the Golan Heights?

Let’s first look at the kind of issues that should be on Israel’s list of demands. We don’t even have to use the word demands. What are our expectations and rights in sincere negotiations with a Syrian peace partner? How about the following:

  • Syria to immediately cut all ties with Hezbollah and end all support for and arms shipments to them.
  • Syria to halt all interference in the internal affairs of the Lebanon.
  • Syria to cease all military and related cooperation with North Korea, especially in the fields of nuclear energy and missile development.
  • Syria to refrain from all efforts to join the nuclear club, whether for military or supposedly civilian purposes. (Want nuclear power for peaceful energy? They’ll be queuing up to build you a nuclear power station.)
  • Syria to put an end to any form of support for or safe haven for terrorists (or their cousins the freedom fighters, gunmen, militants, militias and radicals) directed against Israel or the West. This is primarily but not exclusively directed towards Hamas and its leader Khaled Mashal.
  • Syria to end all military and related ties with Iran, and dissociate itself from Iran’s calls for Israel’s destruction.
  • Finally, Syria to end all attempts to obtain or exploit weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical or nuclear) and delivery mechanisms such as missiles, or to deploy them against Israel.

Would a list such as this be met with hysterical laughter or be rejected out of hand by Syria? So be it. That will (or should) tell us all we need to know about Syria’s intentions and the sincerity of their desire for peace!

Assuming things have now got that far, let’s look at some of the arguments as to why it may not be such a great idea to cede the Golan Heights, and what the alternatives may be.

(I’m not going anywhere near a discussion as to whether the Golan Heights are part of Eretz Israel or not, and if so whether leaders are “permitted” to cede it or not. That issue has no place in concerns about Israel’s national interests and strategic defence needs.)

The price already paid

The Golan has already been paid for twice over in Israeli blood, sweat, tears and lives, in two major wars and countless lesser incidents. Do we really need to continue justifying holding on to it? Is it really worthwhile taking that chance?

Status of the Golan Heights

Unlike Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the Golan has been formally part of Israel proper since 1981. If this status (of being part of the territory of the State of Israel) is to have any real meaning, we cannot afford to dispense with it so casually.

In addition, my understanding is that both a Knesset majority and a national referendum are required before the Golan can be ceded. Shouldn’t that be made clear to our “negotiating partners”?

Regime change in Syria

Any peace agreement with Syria at this stage will be with a regime (and a fragile regime at that), not with a nation and its people. There is no Syrian Peace Now movement. A peace deal is highly unlikely to survive the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and his replacement by a radical Islamist regime. (Come to think of it, have we made plans for such outcomes in Egypt and Jordan?)

Peace or security

Security is more important than peace, and can even be achieved without peace. Peace, on the other hand, is not sustainable without security. At least not for Israel, in this place and time.

Defensible borders

The need for defensible borders (assuming a land war, not an over the horizon high-tech star war) does not go away, even in a peace deal with a genuine partner. It is extremely difficult to see how Syria fits that category.

Other alternatives

What about other alternatives? A new international frontier that fulfils both sides’ legitimate objectives (assuming one side’s objective isn’t still the destruction of the other)? A demilitarised zone? Syria to cede additional territory to Israel? (Think that’s crazy? Let’s not forget who started the wars, not to mention which side lost them.)

Land for peace

“Land for peace” is quite possibly the most dangerous formula ever espoused for a situation such as the one Israel finds itself in. We need to get back to a “peace for peace” mindset and away from the land for peace delusion.

Every time one smoothes the Golan Heights garment, more loose threads snag:

  • Exactly why should there be a “price for peace”, and if so, who should be paying it?
  • Does Syria really desire peace? If so, what is she prepared to sacrifice for it? If not, can she be bribed to accept it?
  • If the Syrians are not a threat, why do we need to appease them? If they are, why do we need to appease them?
  • Even assuming the need to cede the Golan is accepted, why the sudden urgency?
  • Is there some deep-seated reason why we allow ourselves to be treated like Germany at Versailles, or have we simply been out-manoeuvred?

I’m all in favour of genuine peace with Syria, and any of Israel’s other neighbours. I’m less in favour of a peace agreement that does not meet Israel’s legitimate interests and needs.

I’m totally against a peace agreement that fails to address Israel’s security concerns and need for defensible borders, particularly in the event of regime change in Syria.

The bottom line is, I believe Israel will need to retain the Golan Heights in perpetuity, or at least further into the future than any of us can envision right now.

In the broader context, Israel must now move from Concessions-Based Diplomacy to Rights-Based Diplomacy.

We have now reached the point where we have no concessions left to make that do not endanger our very survival. Yet peace still remains a mirage…

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