JERUSALEM – The resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria after eight years of saber-rattling is not a diversion from the political troubles of Israel’s lame-duck prime minister. Nor are the talks a Syrian ploy to avoid facing an international tribunal on the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. An Israeli-Syrian peace deal is strategically vital for both sides, and both sides know it.
The two major formative experiences of Syria’s Ba’ath regime have been Hafez al-Assad’s loss of the Golan Heights in the 1967 war with Israel, and the loss of Lebanon by his son, Bashar, who was forced to withdraw his army under irresistible American-led international pressure. Recovering the Golan Heights and protecting Syria’s vital interests in Lebanon are not only major strategic concerns for Syria’s president; they are also crucial to the regime’s drive for national legitimacy, and to Bashar’s assertion of his own leadership.
Peace with Israel is not Assad’s priority. Rather, it is the prerequisite without which superior goals – rapprochement with the United States, legitimization of Syria’s special status in Lebanon, and avoidance of a potentially devastating war with Israel if the Golan Heights are not recovered by peaceful means – cannot be attained. Indeed, the regime has hinted that it may be willing to compromise on the issue – the delineation of the 1967 border along a tiny piece of land on the Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee – that wrecked the negotiations eight years ago.
An Israeli-Syrian peace is a weighty strategic necessity for Israel, too. The complexities of the threats to Israel are such that a possible confrontation with Hamas in Gaza might trigger a flare-up with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such a war could be won only by the total destruction of Lebanon by Israel’s air force. In that case, Syria would likely seize the opportunity to break the deadlock over the Golan Heights through a military move that could develop into a massive war of missiles targeting Israel’s vulnerable home front. And Iran, in its drive to protect its nuclear program from an Israeli-American attack, might be very active in supporting this ominous scenario.