There was a minor hoopla in recent days over reports of possible stirrings between Israel and Syria, leading to speculation of a US-sponsored secret back channel to renew peace talks on the Syria track. In all likelihood, however, the leaks and the spin that emerged in the Israeli media reflect more a series of domestic battles, especially within the Israeli Left, than any actual movement on the Syria track.
The whole kerfuffle started with an unconfirmed report in World Net Daily on December 26, which claimed that the White House sent National Security Council official Dennis Ross on a secret visit to Israel and Syria the week before to discuss “specifics of a deal.” The report was followed by a similar story in the Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper, which repeated the claim of a secret Ross visit.
Al-Rai’s version was picked up and recycled in the Israeli press. However, days later it emerged on Israel’s Channel 10 that while a secret visit to Syria did indeed take place, it wasn’t Ross who made the trip. Rather, it was Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which suggested that the initial leak superimposed Ross on the Hoenlein trip, conflating it with the former’s upcoming visit to Israel.
The Hoenlein story was packed with speculation of a “secret mission” on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – à la Ron Lauder in 1998 – to relay messages to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. This was assumed to be proof of a supposed old pattern of floating the Syrian option when talks with the Palestinians become stalled. Implicit in this narrative is the suspicion that Netanyahu’s people were behind the story.
However, another way to look at this mini storm in a teacup is to place it in the context of the Israeli Left.
The news in Israel is that the Labor Party is threatening to leave the coalition government. Moreover, there’s pressure within the party on Defense Minister Ehud Barak, challenging his leadership as well as pushing him to quit the coalition. Barak was also getting heat from leftist media, especially when the Haaretz daily ran a story about the Obama administration’s supposed disappointment with his inability to “deliver” Netanyahu in the talks with the Palestinians.
This allegation likely came from the Labor Party, as soon thereafter a public row erupted between Barak and a fellow Labor Party minister over the issue. Similarly, the excitement over a so-called Syrian back channel also originated with the Left. Indeed, the most enthusiastic speculation and spin about the purpose of Hoenlein’s visit ran especially in Haaretz.
It’s no secret that the main cheerleaders of the Syrian track in Israel are the Left and figures (both former and current) in the defense establishment, who always wildly overstate the benefits of a deal with Damascus, and minimize the difficulties it would create for Israeli security – all while revealing a gross misunderstanding of Assad's calculations and interests.
For this group, the Syrian track has become something of a cause célèbre – a development, incidentally, which grows more shrill as the Israeli Left’s irrelevance increases. Consequently, it is a tool in the domestic maneuvers, with the Left looking for someone to pick up the flag of the Syria option, as the following piece in Haaretz did with Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, urging him to assume the Syrian mantle once he decides to enter politics.
But all this parochial maneuvering aside, are the prospects of a revived Syrian track real? If Labor is serious about quitting the coalition in the coming months, it means that Israel will be looking at new elections in about a year’s time. Given Labor's poor performance in the previous elections, it could well be that Barak and his party won't even be part of a new coalition that would emerge from new elections – making the likelihood of any renewed substantive peace process with Syria close to nil. As analyst Jonathan Spyer reminded me, dying coalitions don’t tend to conclude peace processes.
As for the hype over the recess appointment of Robert Ford as US ambassador to Damascus, by the time elections take place and a new coalition government takes shape in Israel, he’d be on his way back to Washington, his one-year assignment having expired.
But it was none other than one of the biggest enthusiasts of the Syria track in Israel, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Uri Sagui, who explained why all the media commotion was unwarranted: “[The] media spin going on here ... cannot cover up the huge gap between Syria and Israel. You don’t have to ask Hoenlein what Assad thinks.” Indeed, as anonymous sources in Jerusalem quoted by Yediot Ahronot put it: “There are various individuals visiting Damascus all the time. The problem with the Syrians is their opening position for negotiations, and the fact that they require prior Israeli commitment to full withdrawal.” Netanyahu voiced the same position on Monday.
In other words, there’s no agreement on the basic framework for resuming talks. And it’s not as though US diplomats dealing with Syria haven’t spent the last couple of years trying to get the Syrians to change their maximalist demands. There’s no reason to believe that any of this has changed, regardless of Hoenlein’s visit – whatever its purpose.
Until then, all this remains little more than the panting of those in Israel who see peace with Syria as a panacea of sorts, or a place of diplomatic breakthrough. All of which is quite fitting, since the belief that Syria is “key” is the hallmark of irrelevant actors, the Israeli Left being chief among them.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.