Paul Pillar

Who's Rejecting Syrian-Israeli Peace?

Last month I wrote about the consequences that would—or would not—flow from a change of regime in Syria, an objective that has been the subject of increasing agitation on the American right. I pointed out how the agitators are likely to be disappointed because much of what they find objectionable in Syrian policies and behavior has less to do with Bashar Assad or Baathists or Alawites than with Syrian national interests that would continue to shape Syrian perspectives no matter who was in charge in Damascus. While the benefits of regime change are thus overestimated, I also noted, “There is underestimation of how much worthwhile business could be conducted with the incumbent regime, however distasteful it may be.” In a full-throated call for regime change, Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal refers to that last statement, along with further remarks about Syria by the secretary of state and other members of the “U.S. foreign policy establishment,” as “fellow-traveling” and “making excuses for the Assad regime,” which he finds “distasteful” and “absurd”.

Stephens addresses neither the overestimation nor the underestimation side of what I discussed, preferring instead just to compile a list of Syrian behaviors he doesn’t like. But the one assertion in his piece that caught my eye was that “Hafez Assad turned down multiple offers from several Israeli prime ministers to return the Golan Heights.” Perhaps, as with Jon Kyl’s remarks about Planned Parenthood, Stephens did not intend this to be a factual statement. But before too many misimpressions get formed about the reasons for deadlock over the Golan, it would be useful to review the relevant historical facts. One meticulously researched treatment of the subject, by Jerome Slater, appeared several years ago in the journal International Security.

Slater goes back to the first round of Israeli-Arab combat, in 1948, in which he notes that Syrian actions were motivated far less by anti-Israeli rejectionism than by three other factors. One was inter-Arab rivalry and specifically Syria’s intention to limit expanded influence of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. Another was to respond to the Israeli expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from territory (particularly in the Galilee region) that was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state provided for in the United Nations partition plan. The third was concern over exactly where the border between Palestine and the Golan was to be.

Following the armistice of 1949, governments in Damascus made repeated offers of peace to the new state of Israel. In 1949 the Syrian regime of Husni Zaim proposed to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that in exchange for permanent access on an equitable basis with Israel to the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, Syria would sign a peace settlement with Israel and would permanently resettle in its own territory 300,000 of the Palestinian refugees. Despite urgings from the United States and from U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche (and from senior Israelis such as Abba Eban), Ben-Gurion refused even to discuss the offer. Zaim was succeeded as Syrian leader by Adib Shishakli, who continued Zaim’s moderate policies (including giving high priority to improving relations with both the United States and Israel). Shishaki renewed Aim’s peace proposal, upping the offer by stating that Syria would absorb 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Again Ben-Gurion refused to negotiate.

Ben-Gurion was motivated by some of the same ideological considerations that drive obstinacy in holding on to the West Bank. Ben-Gurion believed that biblical Palestine—Erez Israel—included the Golan Heights and much of the rest of southwestern Syria. In addition to ideology, by the 1950s Ben-Gurion and armed forces chief (and later defense minister) Moshe Dayan were looking at conquest of the Golan Heights for security and strategic reasons. In an interview in 1976 that was off the record but published after his death, Dayan admitted that Israel had deliberately sought to provoke the Syrians and had instigated “more than 80 percent” of the clashes with Syria. As Dayan explained:

It went this way: We would send a tractor to plow someplace…in the demilitarized area, and [we] knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was.”

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