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Netanyahu Puts Syrian President Back on the Hot Seat

August 11, 1996|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami is director of the Near Eastern Studies Program and associate professor of government at Cornell University

NEW YORK — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ran on a platform that rejected "land for peace" and who continues to reject this principle that has served as the foundation of Arab-Israeli negotiations, made an extraordinary offer on Lebanon last week: Take the land, even without the peace treaty. The offer was immediately rejected by Syria and Lebanon. In response, Netanyahu declared that he has "never heard anything as strange as this."

Strange as Lebanon's and Syria's rejection may seem, one outcome had to please Netanyahu: Attention was back on the Syrian leader, Hafez Assad, on Lebanon and on Hezbollah--not on his government's decision to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, and not on his refusal to meet with Yasser Arafat. And it was the Israeli leader proposing peace, and Assad rejecting it.

Specifically, Netanyahu pledged to withdraw Israeli soldiers from south Lebanon if Hezbollah guerrillas were disarmed, the Lebanese army was deployed on the Lebanon-Israeli frontier and northern Israel was spared any more attacks. But, significantly, he did not demand a full peace treaty with Lebanon, nor the withdrawal of Syrian troops stationed there.

At second glance, Netanyahu's bold proposal was not all that surprising. Although driven by tactical considerations, it was a serious offer. Even before Netanyahu's election, Israeli strategic thinking on Lebanon was changing.

Israel long viewed the strip of territory it occupies in southLebanon as a strategic asset, as well as a buffer against attacks on northern Israel. Accordingly, the land could be used as a bargaining chip in securing a peace treaty with Lebanon and in negotiating the withdrawal of Syrian forces.

But many within the Israeli policy establishment now see the Israeli presence in Lebanon as a strategic asset for Syria, not for Israel. The intensified attacks against Israeli soldiers and their proxy, the south Lebanese army, by Hezbollah guerrillas have helped bring about these changed perceptions. The heavy civilian casualties that invariably accompany Israeli military forays into Lebanon have become a public-relations nightmare for Israel. Syria, meantime, has emerged as the mediator in the conflict.

Thus, many Israeli policy-makers have concluded that the status quo is too costly and that peace with Lebanon, in any case, is unlikely to come before peace with Syria. Worse, this situation gives Syria leverage in its quest to retrieve the Golan Heights.

Although Netanyahu's proposals sprang from this changing strategy toward Lebanon, they were no less tactically rewarding. First, the fact that the Israeli prime minister has offered to quit Lebanon helps to belie his reputation as a man who will not compromise on territory. Second, if Netanyahu succeeds in engaging Syria and Lebanon, he will have restarted the peace process, something he badly needs. Third, Netanyahu has cut into Assad's public-relations advantage.

Before the Israeli elections, the public in Israel and in the United States largely blamed the Syrian president for the lack of progress on the peace front. Some even called for Washington to "get tough" with Syria. This unhappiness served to highlight then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres' peaceful intentions. By contrast, Netanyahu was widely viewed, even by U.S. officials, as an obstacle to peace. His public pronouncements and rejection of the land-for-peace formula only solidified his hawkish reputation. Then, after Netanyahu's victory, the pressure on Assad suddenly lifted, since everyone looked to the new prime minister to make the next move--and move he has.

But the most important gain for Netanyahu may be in what is not stated--the snubbing of Arafat and the diversion of attention from the possibility of more Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the postponement of Israel's promised withdrawal from Hebron. So far, Netanyahu has not carried out the expansion policy. Nor has he revealed his own plans for the future of the territories. Furthermore, if the Israeli government is aiming to marginalize Arafat, it has not fully succeeded. Arafat's clout at home has further diminished; he is quarreling more with the elected Palestinian Legislative Council. But the need to bridge differences within the Arab world has contributed to the revival of Arafat's fortunes among Arab leaders, including Assad.

In the end, the issues tied to the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations constitute the core differences between the current Israeli government and its predecessor--not the issues of Syria and Lebanon. There is little urgency to make a deal with Syria, since the status quo on the Golan Heights is not troublesome, there are no vital economic interests at stake, there is no immediate military danger and the Golan Heights remain sparsely populated. Importantly, the current Israeli government does not make ideological claims on the Golan Heights. Eventually, Israel and Syria will make their peace.

But on the Palestinian front, time is of the essence: More Israeli settlements on the West Bank would make effective Palestinian independence more difficult, if not impossible, and more than 2 million Palestinians continue to endure hardship there--at the same time that Israelis remain targets of terrorism. This status quo is untenable, and even if Arafat can survive it, the eruption of violence remains a disturbing possibility. The sooner this lesson is relearned, the better.

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