Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0006
February 8, 2000

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

PROFESSOR STEPHEN ZUNES: I believe peace in the Middle East is inevitable. But the question is, is how long and how many lives will have to be sacrificed before it finally becomes reality.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the prospect for Israeli-Syrian peace.

STEPHEN ZUNES: I think in many ways, ironically the United States has been hurting the process, in large part because the Clinton administration in particular has been taking positions that have actually supported some of the hard-line elements within Israel.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The renewed Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations are off to a shaky start. So shaky, in fact, that neither side can agree on an agenda. Israel wants to negotiate security and normalized relations with Syria. Syria, on the other hand, wants Israel to make a firm commitment on returning the Golan Heights. And reoccurring guerrilla violence in the region only underscores the fact that the conflict won’t be easy to resolve. Stephen Zunes is an Associate Professor of Politics and the Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is cautiously optimistic both sides will broker peace, but he agrees both sides must still surpass several hurdles.

ZUNES: Syria, like most Arab countries, did not recognize Israel’s very right to exist and has been in a continued state of war with Israel since that country’s creation. The, that proposition has modified quite a bit in recent years as the Syrian government, like most Arab governments, realized that Israel was here to stay. They have to live with it. And to expect normal relations with the United States, and indeed, to normalize the security and economic development of the region, that peace with Israel was necessary. The current dispute deals with a region of southwestern Syria known as the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the final days of the 1967 war. During the 20 years prior to that the Syrian would take advantage of the high ground to lob shells into Israeli territory, including at civilian settlements. Israel, however, according to United Nations monitors who were there during that 19-year period, reported that Israel actually committed the majority of the cease-fire violations; actually ended up killing far more Syrian civilians than Syrians killed Israeli civilians. And so the Syrians argue that high ground or no, that the insecure that border rests at least as much with Israel as it does with Syria.

Moshe Dayan, who was the Defense Minister during the `67 war, and considered a hawk at the time, actually raised serious questions about whether seizing the Heights was necessary, given the political complications that it would have. Indeed, at this point, Syria does appear ready to make peace with Israel, except for the resolution of the Golan. When Israel seized the Golan, they engaged in a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Arab population. Syrians say as many as 200,000 people were expelled. They allowed, the Israeli’s allowed to stay five Druze villages, which have engaged periodically in forms of nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation and have faced, according to Amnesty International, and other reputable human rights groups, systematic human rights violations in the process. These Druze would like to be reunited with Syria at the earliest possible time. A complicating factor has been Israel has settled 15,000 Israelis onto the Golan, a very rich agricultural land with enormous scenic beauty, who don’t seem to be quite willing to leave either. And so the current dispute right now is whether Israel indeed will be willing to withdraw from the entire territory, what kind of security guarantees the Syrians are willing to provide, and what will happen to both the Israeli settlers who live their now, as well as the Syrian Arabs who want to return to their land.

MCHUGH: At the talks in January, Israel wanted to talk normalization and security issues, and Syria only wanted to talk about the Golan Heights. Is Syria willing to negotiate on those terms with Israel? Just to sit down at the bargaining table? Or is this really a big impasse?

ZUNES: Actually, Syria has made some pretty major concessions in both of those areas. What they are frustrated about is that Israel has not yet said unequivocally that “In return for these we’ll give back the Golan.” I think there’s a pretty clear outline of what both sides want to do. It’s just a matter of—at least from the Syrian perspective—that the Israeli’s will let them have what they want in return for these concessions. Now, the, on the security front, the Syrians have agreed to Israeli demands to demilitarize the Golan, to have a nonaggression pact, to have international monitors in strategic areas, and the like. These do meet Israel’s basic security concerns. Where the main disagreement in this area, is that the Syrians say, “Well, if we have to back, keep our troops 15 miles from the international border, you Israeli’s have to keep your troops 15 miles back from the international border.” And Israel is insisting, “No.” We get to keep our troops right up to the border, and you and only you have to pull back.” So there’s this disagreement about symmetry there. But other than that, the security guarantees Israel has been seeking, the Syrians have agreed to.

And again, according to UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, that Israel did, has to give up the land in return for such security guarantees. But Israelis want more. They want full diplomatic and economic relations as well. And it’s quite understandable why Israel, who’s been isolated for so many years from its Arab neighbors, would want full normal and economic relations with its neighbors. It’s quite understandable. It’s not actually required, according to the UN resolutions, as a condition for giving up the land. Despite that the Syrians have agreed to exchange ambassadors, have normal political relations, and over time at least, open up to more general economic relations as well. So that’s another area that where the Syrians have compromised far more than many people expected. Certainly given their hostility over most of the past 30 years or so.

MCHUGH: Ehud Barak is much more willing to negotiate the Golan than his predecessor. Why?

ZUNES: Well, Barak is a military man who is very pragmatic. And he recognizes that at this point the Golan is the only real obstacle for peace with Syria, which is the only neighboring country now with whom they don’t have a peace treaty that has a credible military force. So, peace with Syria would mean no longer having to face that military threat on their northeastern border. In addition, peace with Syria will also mean peace with Lebanon. While the Lebanese Army has never been a threat to speak of, an Islamic-led resistance movement has been fighting Israeli occupation forces in South Lebanon for quite a few years. And there is hope that with, peace with Syria can lead to a withdrawal of Israeli forces and a demilitarization of the Hezbollah movement, since Syria, for all intents and purposes, controls Lebanon’s foreign policy. So in a sense, I think Barak is recognizing that he can have the Golan or he can have peace. And he is leaning more and more towards the realization that Israel will be far more secure without the Golan and with peace with Syria and Lebanon than holding on to the Golan and not having peace with Syria and Lebanon.

MCHUGH: You mentioned Lebanon. What about Israeli peace with other countries in the Middle East? And other regions—Palestine, for example? How will an arrangement between the Israelis and the Syrians affect those negotiations?

ZUNES: Well, peace with Syria, which by extension would likely lead to peace with Lebanon, would complete the series of peace agreements with neighboring states. A peace agreement was signed with Jordan back in 1994, and of course the Camp David Agreement back in the late 1970s with Egypt. And this has been part of the US-Israeli strategy for some time. The US and Israel had always rejected the United Nations call for all-parties conference and replaced it with this kind of bilateral approach. Which the Arabs saw as divide and rule. Indeed, the Palestinians, who’s whole quest for national self-determination, had its primary backing, at least in theory, from neighboring Arab states, will now be totally on their own to negotiate a settlement.

And the US position in the Israeli-Palestinian talks has been, “Well, the two sides have to work it out themselves and we’ll try to facilitate things where we can.” But of course, that ignores the gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers. And with the last neighboring Arab states with their own separate peace agreements, the Palestinians will be more isolated than ever. In many ways the Syrian track will be quite easy, compared I think, to the much more difficult issue with the Palestinians. For one thing, the Israeli settlers in the Golan are mostly there because it’s a nice place to live and they can make good money in their vineyards and ski resorts and that kind of thing. Compared to, say, the settlers in the West Bank, who, many of whom are strongly ideologically driven and are fundamentalist Jews who cannot be bought off as the settlers in the Golan might be.

MCHUGH: Where does the United States fit in to all this? Certainly President Clinton wants to go out of office with a legacy of structuring some Middle East peace agreements. But is US involvement helping or hurting the process?

ZUNES: I think in many ways, ironically the United States has been hurting the process, in large part because the Clinton administration in particular has been taking positions that have actually supported some of the hard-line elements within Israel. They have essentially, after criticizing Syria for years, during the ‘70s and ‘80s for rejecting UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, the Clinton administration more recently has been criticizing Syria for insisting on, sort of, lawful implementation. They are supporting the Israeli’s, saying “You need economic, and diplomatic relations, not just security guarantees. You need to go beyond simply the letter of the agreement and give these extra things, that Israel wants.” Which the Syrians see as essentially moving the goal posts. Our Under Secretary of State for the Middle East, Martin Indic, has publicly opposed Israel withdrawal from South Lebanon, even though UN Security Council resolution 425 explicitly says Israel has to pull out unconditionally. So he’s essentially telling Israel to violate UN Security Council resolutions, while at the same time we’re starving Iraqi children for their country’s refusal to abide by UN Security Council resolutions. So a lot of Arabs see the double standard. So there have been many cases along the line where the US has not been as supportive as it could of the peace process.

And the very fact that we, to this day, have refused to support Palestinian self-determination, Palestinian statehood, when for years, the consensus has been the only way there can really be peace is if there can be a Palestinian state alongside Israel. And that Palestinian rights and Israeli security are not mutually exclusive as the Clinton administration has implied, but in fact, mutually dependent.

MCHUGH: And of course, we have also given security assurances to Israel.

ZUNES: Well, very much so. I mean, I think, I don’t think anybody disagrees with—or very people anyway—with the idea that the United States has a special moral commitment to Israel, including guarantees for its security. Where there’s a lot of question, is essentially a carte blanche in terms of the vast amounts of military aid, the use of the veto in the United Nations when its condemned for bombing civilian targets or violating human rights and international law. The tendency to refuse to make the vast amounts of aid conditional to human rights, international law, progress in the peace process. We’ve used this economic aid as leverage against the Palestinian authorities, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and others, but Israel, it’s very clear that whatever they do, more settlements, blowing up Palestinian homes, whatever, they’ll get this huge, large amounts of money.

The other controversy about it is the fact that Israel, makes, consists of maybe 1/1000 of the world’s population but they get over 40% of all US foreign aid. Six times all of sub-Saharan Africa. Which many people would argue needs the money a lot more, especially since Israeli Jews have something like the 15th highest per capita income in the world. And so that is also a controversy. But, well, I’ve long argued, and I think many people in the Israeli peace movement have been arguing, is that it really isn’t about Israeli security, this close relationship. Nor would I argue that it’s really that much to do with the pro-Israel either. I mean, US foreign policy frankly is not that pluralistic that one lobbying group by a minority of Americans, even a fairly powerful one, has that much influence. I think what it comes down to is the strategic role that Israel plays for US interests in the region. And I talked to an Israeli major general recently who talked about how the aid package has a lot more to do with keeping the assembly lines of Lockheed-Martin and other arms manufacturers going, than any objective Israeli needs.

But I think what we’re seeing in the entire peace process, frankly, is not a search for peace, but of a Pax Americana. One where the Unites States and its ally Israel can effectively dominate the strategic, political, and economic direction of this most vital and strategically important part of the world. And even though we have close relations with many Arab monarchies now, and they share with Israel a need to maintain the status quo against leftist or Islamic or nationalist opponents, they simply don’t have the political stability, the domestic arms industry, the educated population, the well-trained fighting force, that Israel has. There’ll never be a substitute for that relationship with Israel.

PORTER: Coming up, more with professor Steven ZUNES on the US role in the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

ZUNES: I’ve always learned that when you have peace agreements it leads to demilitarization. But the motto that the United States seems to be following in the Middle East is, if you have a peace agreement, we send more arms into the region. Now that just make any sense.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MCHUGH: The tone of the latest round of talks in January was really upbeat going into those talks. That tone has certainly changed. But Ehud Barak still remains really optimistic that a framework can be hammered out, as he says, in a couple of months. Is that really realistic?

ZUNES: I think both sides have a real interest in securing an agreement. The fact that they’re meeting is at a high as level as they are—the Israeli prime minister, the Syrian foreign minister—I think is quite impressive. I’ve talked to both the Syrian foreign minister and the Israeli foreign minister on this topic and I’m quite clear that they see the rational need to move forward. The concern—the main concern, actually—is that there are many Israelis who hold on to the notion that the Golan is absolutely vital for Israel’s security. Now, now only is there some question about that going even as far back as `67, but particularly today in the era of medium-range missiles, long-range artillery—you know, the high ground just doesn’t have the same strategic importance that it used to. Particularly if they have all these guarantees of demilitarization and pulling troops back and international monitors.

But you know, it’s kind of like, you know back during the Cold War we would, the United States would build a weapons system saying it’s going to be a bargaining chip for negotiations with the Soviets. Well, once we built it, it suddenly became vital for our national security and we couldn’t possibly give it up. And so it’s something that, it’s one of those things that you build up a population’s fear and sense of insecurity for many years and suddenly say, “Well, we don’t need this anyway.” Sometimes it takes time to reverse it. And certainly that’s a challenge that the Barak government is going to have to face. But I think they have a strong case to make to their people.

And I think, frankly they would have a better case of winning the Israeli’s over if the United States is willing to pressure Israel. Including conditioning aid on living up to their international obligations. Again, I’m not suggesting they withdraw without security guarantees, but the Syrians have appeared to offer strong security guarantees. And so there shouldn’t be anything in the way right now. Now what the Clinton administration strategy is right now, is to pay off Israel at least—and I’ve heard some figures even higher—but the low end is $17 billion. And that troubles a number of people, myself included. Seven billion dollars is supposed to be for the settlers, to bring them back and to resettle them in Israel. Well, for one thing this sounds somewhat excessive. That comes to about $650,000 per settler, which seems to be an awful lot of money. But also, the fact is, is that these settlements are illegal and they were known to be illegal from the very beginning. They are in violation of Article 40 of the Geneva Convention, which makes it illegal to move civilian parts of your population into territory seized by military force. And UN Security Council resolutions 446 and 465 specifically demand that Israel withdraw these settlements.

And the other thing that disturbs is that the remaining $10 billion to be for military aid. Now this follows the Wye River agreement which this package that was debated last fall about to implement the Wye River agreement—well, $1.4 of that $1.8 billions was new weapons into the region. The Israeli-Jordanian agreement, let to more weapons in the region. The Camp David agreement has led to over $4 billion in military equipment every year since 1979. Now, I’m a professor in international relations. I’ve always learned that when you have peace agreements it leads to demilitarization. But the motto that the United States seems to be following in the Middle East is, if you have a peace agreement, we send more arms into the region. Now that just make any sense. And again, I think it goes back to the suspicion that the Israeli’s have that this big push for arms has nothing to do with security and everything to do with the profits of Americans arms merchants. And of course, we all know that when you send more and more weapons into conflict-ridden regions, it enhances the likelihood of war. It doesn’t decrease it. And so, it seems to be a very, very twisted kind of logic; indeed, downright Orwellian, to argue that we need to send in more and more arms to implement peace agreements and make peace possible.

MCHUGH: If Israel and Syria finally reach a peace agreement, it still faces a referendum in Israel. First, why does it face a referendum? And two, does Barak have the support that he needs in order to get that passed?

ZUNES: One thing that’s really, I find really positive about Israeli democracy, is their system of proportional representation, where a variety of political opinions, even fairly small ones, can get representation within the Knessett, the Israeli parliament. The disadvantage is that sometimes it leads to fairly extreme elements having a disproportional amount of influence and the major political groupings have to patch together these coalitions which are often factious and very, very difficult. And I think Barak, I think quite accurately, calculated that he would probably have a better chance of this being ratified by a popular vote than he would by a Knesset where there’d be a lot of posturing by certain political parties who want to make political capital out of what some of them may see as compromising too much.

MCHUGH: The optimism surrounding Middle East peace over the years has kind of been like a roller coaster. I mean, there’s good optimism sometimes, and other times it’s really diminished. Are we on a path of actually, finally striking an accord between Syria and Israel?

ZUNES: I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been before. But, again, I think there needs to—I think it would be a danger if Israel and the United States tried to overreach and get, try to get more from Syria than is necessary for Israel’s security concerns. ‘Cause if they do, I don’t think Syria is willing to compromise any more than they are. And again, nor do they need to. Again, legally speaking, both in terms of the UN Security Council resolutions, but also in terms of the security guarantees. So there’s a risk there. And so I’m not optimistic for an immediate breakthrough. But again, there’s it makes so much more sense for both sides to come to an agreement, I think sooner or later we will get somewhere. I think there’s a danger in trying impose a Pax Americana, because real peace can only happen when there is justice. It’s not just a matter of preventing interstate war. It’s a matter of sustainable economic development. It’s a matter of the right of self-determination. It’s a matter of sharing the region’s wealth and culture, and indeed, it’s holy sites. I don’t see peace happening unless there is, indeed, normal political and economic relations where people can be able to elect their own government. That requires certainly democratization in Syria and elsewhere. I think it requires, among other things, sharing Jerusalem. It’s a holy site not just for Jews, but for Christians and Muslims as well. I would love to see it as some kind of co-capital or some kind of something that both the Palestinians and Israelis can share. I don’t think peace can come unless there’s an equitable sharing of water resources, which the Israelis have been, not been willing to do so far.

That, what I see is where Israeli capital and Arabian oil wealth and Palestinian industriousness can combine to transform the Middle East. And this does not mean Israelis dominating. I would not like to see Gaza turned into a string of maqulladoras??-type sweatshops, but one where there can be really sustainable economic development that would benefit all parties. And part of this also requires demilitarization. A huge percentage of that region’s wealth goes into arms. And we need to stop this arms race, even if it means cutting into the profits of arms manufacturers here in the United States. I think peace is far more important. And I think more important for America’s long-term economic and strategic interests as well. We need to be more even-handed. And that doesn’t mean abandoning Israel at all. It doesn’t mean ending our special relationship. Our policy right now is sort of one of we will give massive arms shipments to Arab countries regardless of their human rights record, lack of democracy, which enables them to suppress nascent democratic movements, and then turn around and say, “Oh, these, they’re not democracies because Arab culture or Islamic culture doesn’t allow for it.” And then we turn around and say, “Oh, we gotta give all these arms to Israel, ‘cause it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.” Seventy-six senators sent a letter to President Clinton a couple of years ago saying “We have to maintain current levels of military aid to Israel—we can’t reduce them at all because of this massive procurement of arms by Arab states.” And nowhere in that letter did it mention that 80% of the arms going to the Arab states were also from the United States. If we were really concerned about Israel’s security we’d be talking about an arms moratorium and actually demilitarization. Indeed, Israel asked explicitly for an arms moratorium way back in 1991. But the US rejected it because we wanted to sell more arms. I’m afraid this Pax Americana that the United States is pushing for will-even if it leads to agreement between Israel and Syria in the next few months—is sewing the seeds of greater violence and greater instability, which I don’t think will help anybody.

MCHUGH: My final question is, what can we expect for a time line?

ZUNES: It’s really hard to say. I think in many ways we’re fairly close. And again, I think the march towards peace is inevitable. I think a lot of it will determine on whether Israel will keep on insisting on more than just the basic security guarantees and if they’re really willing to give up, and if they’re willing to give Syria back all the land that is occupied, which I think they will be willing to do eventually, but it’s a matter of time. I think it depends on how willing the United States is to pressure Israel to compromise for its own good. So it could be a few months, but just a few months in best case scenario, but it could also drag on for a number of years. I believe peace in the Middle East is inevitable. But the question is, is how long and how many lives will have to be sacrificed before it finally becomes reality.

MCHUGH: That is Stephen Zunes. He’s an Associate Professor of Politics and the Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security