Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hafez al-Assad's student

The House of Assad (Beit Assad in both Arabic and Hebrew) stayed in power for forty years (and counting) not by being nice. But not merely by being brutal and cruel either...after all the Saddam dynasty was even more cruel and it is no longer in power. Hafez al-Assad was a very astute student of the politics of power, both domestically and in the region. He saw that it was in his interest both domestically and regionally to remain in a state of no war, no peace with Israel. He lacked the strength militarily to compel Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, but could use the quest for it as the legitimizing feature of his regime, based as it was on the minority Alawite group and an alliance with other sectarian minorities such as the Druze against the Sunni Muslim majority.

Assad perfected the art of negotiating so as to extract the less morsel that the opponent could give. He extracted the return of Kuneitra, captured in 1967, along with the territory captured in the 1973 Yom Kippur War from Israel in separation of forces agreement negotiated in May 1974. He then managed to extract a promise from Yitzhak Rabin that Israel would return all the territory captured in June 1967 in exchange for peace before negotiations even began. He, and his son Bashar, at times made what seemed like generous offers but he refused to make any gestures like Sadat did in November 1977 or as King Hussein did to reassure the Israeli public that he was a trustworthy partner for peace. He preferred the appearance of being open to peace more than the actual peace itself.

He was notorious during Bill Clinton's first term for keeping Secretary of State Warren Christopher waiting for meetings and for engaging in meaningless small talk for hours before getting down to the matter at hand. Both Assads only appeared eager for negotiations and peace when there was movement on the rival Palestinian track with the PLO. Thus, the seemingly far-reaching offers by Bashar Assad to Olmert's secret envoy in 2007-08 when Olmert was engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians. Peace talks or hints at peace were more common after the collapse of Syria's Soviet patron in 1992 than before. Both Hafez al-Assad and Bashar needed to keep the administration in Washington sweet.

Damascus's main regional alliance under the Assads was with Tehran. After Anwar Sadat, Assad's partner in the 1973 October War, went to Jerusalem in 1977 Assad was "forced" into the rejectionist camp with his Ba'athist rivals in Baghdad. So when the mullahs came to power in Tehran in 1979 Assad eagerly embraced them as a means of escaping the hated regime in Iraq and allying with a powerful protector. It was a pan-Shite alliance consisting of the Shite regime in Iran, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and the Shia Alawites in Damascus.

Knowing the obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace on the Palestinian track, and the Syrian record for keeping agreements on the Golan, the Israeli security establishment became a prime advocate of a deal with Syria during the 2000s. They envisaged Damascus trading its alliance with Tehran for one with Washington as Cairo had done under Sadat thirty years before. But that was never seriously in the cards. Tehran never complained about Syria's internal affairs as Washington would have done constantly. And Syria could never have continued its ploy of being the champion of pan-Arabism if it was allied with Washington. But the Iranian alliance prevented the Assads from having any Arab imitators. But they did have one imitator in the region.

In his first term in office Benjamin Netanyahu came into power opposed to the Oslo process, was forced by pressure from Washington to make territorial concessions at Wye in October 2008 and then saw his coalition collapse before he could implement the agreement. Bibi claimed to have learned his lessons. But rather than opting for a coalition with Tzipi Livni and Kadima a decade later he concluded an agreement with rightwing parties with Labor as window dressing. He then paid lip service to accepting "two states for two peoples" in June 2009 in a speech at Bar Ilan University. But he made this conditional on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, something that Israel's Arab minority vehemently opposes. Like Assad Netanyahu knew when to make concessions to Washington and when to thumb his nose at the Obama administration. He is blessed with Palestinian partners who seem to be as hesitant about making peace as he is. Just as Hafez al-Assad was blessed with the weak Shimon Peres in 1996 and the hesitant Ehud Barak in 1999-2000.

Netanyahu's balancing act will be much more delicate than Bashar Assad's. He cannot call the police and army out into the streets to shoot down protesters...or at least not Jewish ones. So he will be forced to creatively bob and weave with a housing freeze here and new settlement construction there. And he may be forced to change dance partners soon from Avigdor Liebermann to Tzipi Livni. At least then he will have a foreign minister then who can speak passable English and is not loathed by the international community. Should this occur we can expect lots of renewed talk about the new Bibi, just like the new Nixon in the 1960s. There were multiple new Nixons and there will be multiple Bibi's.

So Basher Assad should stop worrying, at least if he is forced into exile he leaves a legacy behind.

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