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Will Netanyahu negotiate with Syria?

By Chris Phillips.

The recent meeting between Obama and Netanyahu focused on the several issues that shape the relationship between the US and Israel in the Middle East. One issue in particular, the peace talks between Israel and Syria, was left out of the press conference that followed the meeting between the two leaders, leaving plenty of space for speculation regarding the future of the talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's eagerly anticipated first meeting with Barack Obama in mid-May proved less dramatic than expected. Whilst many analysts thought the encounter would give greater definition to the new administration's peace programme and direct the Israelis more forcefully to the negotiating table, the results proved ambiguous. Obama couldn't quite strong-arm Bibi into endorsing a two-state solution whilst Netanyahu was similarly unsuccessful in tying any resolution to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Yet whilst Palestine and Iran dominated the talks a notable absence from the leaders' subsequent press conference was the once salient issue of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Though some in Washington had initially proposed the Syrian track as potentially the most straight-forward deal to broker, the momentum on this issue seems to have waned in recent months. Indeed, Netanyahu's statements before his American trip suggest he has already ruled out returning the Golan Heights - Syria's key demand for peace negotiations. This article considers the likelihood of Israel reviving talks with its northern neighbour.

Superficially, analysts see the Syrian track as the simplest of Israel's conflicts to address. Damascus has long stated its willingness to accept a land for peace deal that sees the Golan Heights returned for a full peace agreement. Moreover, the Ba'ath party's monopoly on power and arms make them a more straightforward negotiating partner than the factionalised Palestinians and Lebanese. Unlike in the West Bank, there are fewer controversies surrounding Israeli settlement evacuation. Whilst Palestinian territories now host over 450,000 settlers, the Golan houses barely 18,000 who many expect will prove easier to coax away than their more religiously motivated counterparts further south. With Damascus stating within weeks of Netanyahu's election that they are willing to open talks, and indirect contact already made by the previous Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the prospects for progress seemed likely.

So why has Netanyahu seemingly killed the negotiations before they begin by refusing to consider Syria's primary demand? Several reasons present themselves. Firstly, unlike past negotiators like Ehud Barak or Olmert, Netanyahu has political capital invested in keeping Golan as part of Israel. When Prime Minister in 1996-9, he adopted the slogan of 'the three No's': no to ceding Golan, no to partitioning Jerusalem, and no to negotiations under preconditions - illustrating that he ranked Golan as important a territory as Jerusalem. Similarly, in opposition he was one of the strongest supporters of a new law introduced by the Knesset in 2008 insisting that a referendum be called before any government handed the region back to Syria. To symbolise this steadfast position, Bibi opened his 2009 election campaign by planting a tree on the occupied heights.

Several other factors suggest that the new government wish to avoid Syrian negotiations. For one thing, Likud's coalition partners on the right are against ceding territory. Yisrael Beitnu leader Avigdor Lieberman said recently that he had no problem with negotiating with Syria, as long as they dropped the return of Golan as a fundamental demand. Similarly, Bashar Asad's public determination to maintain his alliance with Iran in spite of a potential deal with Israel presents Netanyahu with the uncomfortable prospect of handing territory to his main enemy's ally. Furthermore, the new Premier has publically questioned whether Syria would honour any agreement declaring that, "Remaining on the Golan will ensure Israel has a strategic advantage in cases of military conflict with Syria." Finally, as Syria expert Joshua Landis suggests, Bibi might be avoiding dealing with the Syria front because it is too straightforward. Whilst the various complexities of the West Bank situation allow for various delays and procrastination that might enable Israel to minimise the land it cedes, Golan is a more open-shut case.

The fate of negotiations between Syria and Israel therefore seems in the hands of Barack Obama and whether he can persuade or coerce Netanyahu into changing his stance on Golan. Though the issue's absence from the Washington agenda was a blow to those hoping for a swift resumption of talks, the signs remain promising. The US President spoke positively about the Arab Peace Initiative that would see all the Arab states recognise Israel were it to return to its pre-1967 borders, including evacuating Golan. Following his meeting with the US President in March, King Abdullah of Jordan confirmed this stance by speaking of America promoting a '57-state' solution that entailed all the Muslim states accepting the Jewish state were it to give up occupied territory. Speaking to The Times in early May, Abdullah spoke of the White House taking a 'regional approach' that would see not just the Palestinians, but also the Syrians and Lebanese at the negotiating table.

Yet Obama's preferred multilateral approach flies in the face not only of Netanyahu's preferences, but also Israel's past precedent. With the exception of the Madrid conference in 1991, which George H. Bush had to drag Yitzhak Shamir to by threatening to withhold aid, Israel has always preferred to deal with Arab states bilaterally. This has ensured they faced no combined front of tough negotiators in the past and allowed a divide and rule strategy. Nothing in Netanyahu's past actions imply he will break tradition by embracing a multilateral plan and take the lead in negotiations. His behaviour in Washington suggests he will instead attempt to manoeuvre around Obama's demands, carefully playing his bargaining chips to ensure maximum gain. In this scenario the future of Syria-Israel negotiations depends on two factors. Firstly, how important does Bibi really consider Golan compared to his other priorities of disarming Iran, keeping East Jerusalem and settlements and secondly, how hard is Barack Obama willing to push the Israeli Premier to achieve a multilateral peace?

This article was first published in 'The Majalla'.