Israels Policy Options

Written by INSS


May 19, 2008

INSS Policy Brief No. 12,
Shmuel Even

There have been some fundamental changes in the peace process over the last year:

a.   The Syrian channel: After years of stagnation there are signs of activity through mediators. The Syrians declared that Israel has signaled that it would be willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights on certain conditions. What is taking place is still far from direct negotiations, and each side is suspicious of the other.

b.   The Palestinian channel: While Israel conducts negotiations with Abu Mazen, the split in the Palestinian camp completely rules out – at least for the foreseeable future – the possibility of realizing a political solution that relates to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a single entity.

This essay considers Israel’s policy options for furthering its objective of living in peace with its neighbors, given the changes that have occurred in Israel\s strategic environment. The paper does not examine Israel's internal constraints, and assumes Israel is capable of implementing agreements that will advance its political goals. Nonetheless, Israel would find it difficult to implement permanent settlements simultaneously on both channels.

Negotiations with Syria over a Permanent Settlement

Several basic premises underlie the discussion:

a. Syria’s goals in an agreement are to recover the Golan Heights in its entirety and improve relations with the United States, namely, gain legitimization of the Syrian regime in American eyes, arrive at understandings regarding Syrian involvement in Lebanon, and merit financial benefits.

b. Israel is willing to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights if its conditions are met. It will make do with a cold peace with Syria and appropriate security arrangements. A cooling of relations between Syria and Iran and Hizbollah is a fundamental Israeli condition for an agreement with Syria.

c.  While the United States is not opposed to talks between Israel and Syria, it is still not ready to take on the meaningful partnership role in the talks that would allow discussion of US perks for Syria.

d. Israel and the United States have no interest in toppling the Asad regime, as there is no guarantee that his replacement would be any better.

The Open Question

Experts in Israel are divided on the critical question of whether Asad will agree to pay the price of forfeiting Syria’s ties with Iran and Hizbollah, in return for peace with Israel. The issue's immediate context is the survivability of Asad’s regime, which is at the top of the priority list. Indeed, Asad faces dilemmas every way he turns:

a. Iran aspires to become a regional nuclear power and Hizbollah is a key element in Lebanon, and thus Syria views the pact the pact with Hizbollah and Iran as a strategic asset. On the other hand, this coalition lacks a common ideological base and is dangerous for the Syrian regime. In the future, Iran and Hizbollah are liable to threaten Damascus’ influence and Asad’s secular Arab regime. This alliance may also limit Asad’s room for maneuver against Islamization trends on the home front.

b.  Regarding an agreement with Israel with US involvement, Syria is interested in moving closer to the United States; reducing the Israeli threat; recovering the Golan Heights; maintaining its influence in Lebanon, particularly economic, in order to bolster its national resilience; and ensuring the regime’s stability. On the other hand, Asad is wary of normalization and democratization processes – promoted by the US – that may endanger the minority Alawi regime, and is concerned over US pressure to reduce Syria’s influence in Lebanon.

Therefore, an analysis of Syria’s current situation highlights Asad’s difficulty in disengaging from the Iran-Hizbollah grip. However, Syria’s long term interests indicate that it would be better for Syria to temper its links with Iran and Hizbollah and pursue peace with Israel, especially as this tempering relates only to Israel’s defense interests (see below). The question is if Asad will be strong enough to take a short term risk in the interest of Syria’s long term future. Although there is no clear cut answer to this, one may estimate that the option of negotiations with Syria offers potential that Israel must consider seriously.

Arguments in Favor of Israeli Negotiations with Syria

a.  A treaty with Syria would remove Syria from the cycle of confrontation. A diplomatic treaty is apparently the only way of bringing change to the strategic situation with Syria, currently the only Arab country involved in a military confrontation with Israel. Military options against Syria involve great risk and their long term benefits are dubious. Even a crushing victory by the IDF that might bring about the collapse of the Asad regime does not necessarily serve Israel’s interests.

b.  A treaty with Syria may also make it possible to achieve a treaty with Lebanon or at least reach understandings with Syria regarding the situation in Lebanon. This would significantly improve Israel’s strategic position vis-à-vis this sector. A peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon would complete the peace process with the Arab countries surrounding Israel.

c.  A treaty with Syria will significantly enhance Israel’s relations with the Arab world and may facilitate talks with additional Arab states.

d.  A treaty with Syria might dismantle the hostile Iran-Syria-Hizbollah coalition, which in itself would be a favorable development.

e.  An agreement would impact indirectly, but significantly, on the Iranian nuclear threat, if it materializes. It may alleviate the friction and circumstances in which an Iranian attack might ensue, thereby mitigating somewhat the Iranian threat to Israel. However, a treaty with Syria is not expected to affect Iran's motivation or ability to obtain a nuclear bomb.

f.   There may be a positive impact on the Palestinian channel. Entering talks with Syria may make the Palestinian positions more flexible, with the Palestinians not wanting to be left behind. A treaty with the Syrians may also enhance the chance of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, by removing the Syrian support for Palestinian opposition elements and strengthening the peace camp (many Palestinians have no interest in being a separate camp in an Arab environment that enjoys peace relations with Israel).

g.  If no treaty is achieved with Syria, Israel may miss a potential window of opportunity. This lost opportunity erodes the momentum that emerged from the Second Lebanon War that caused damage to Hizbollah’s status as the defender of Lebanon and brought about its removal from the border. In other words, tension may return to this border, and for that matter, the risks of war may increase. Various events such as a retaliatory response by Hizbollah and/or Syria to actions attributed by them to Israel may also ignite the region. The Syria-Iran-Hizbollah coalition increases the potential for the outbreak of widespread violence. In addition, a future US withdrawal from Iraq and negative developments in the region might reshuffle the cards and prevent a long term settlement. The US currently acts as a buffer between Iran and Jordan and the Arab Gulf states, and its forces are deployed along Syria’s rear. This may deter Syria also with regard to its actions on the Israeli front. The departure of the US armed forces from Iraq is liable to affect this situation and increase Iranian influence in Iraq. This would have negative strategic ramifications on Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.

Arguments against Israeli Negotiations with Syria

a.  While Syria states its determination “to liberate” the Golan Heights from Israel, if necessary by military means, at least in the coming years it is doubtful whether it is worthwhile for Syria to initiate a war with Israel, in view of the possible results. For this reason and in any case because peace with Syria would be a cold peace, Israel has no driving force to hurry to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

b.  If the talks break down there may be a crisis of unfulfilled expectations in Syria, which may strengthen its readiness for the military option, as well as reinforce the coalition with Iran and Hizbollah and support for the Palestinian terror organizations.

c.   Israel is liable to pay unnecessary costs (for example, in the domestic arena) if in fact Asad is incapable of realizing such a move in Syria or does not agree to provide the returns that Israel expects, including the change in Syria’s relations with Iran and Hizbollah; or the US is not persuaded to join the process to the extent expected by Syria. In addition, an unsuccessful move may damage the American effort to pressure Syria over its involvement in terror, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Challenges en Route to a Treaty with Syria

a.   Convincing Asad of the sincerity of Israel’s intentions: While the signals sent to Syria in April with regard to Israel’s willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights evoked significant response from Damascus and a positive reaction from Syrian spokespeople, Asad did not conceal his suspicion. According to the al-Wattan newspaper of April 24, 2008, Asad said: “We will first discuss the return of all the territory – in order to test the integrity of Israel’s intentions, as we have to be careful and precise in this area.” This comment can be seen against a backdrop of Syria’s view that the Israeli prime minister’s peace efforts do not reflect a genuine acceptance of withdrawal from the Golan Heights and are rather motivated by tactical needs, such as: preventing retaliation against Israel for destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor; creating a rift between Syria and Iran and Hizbollah; and advancing Israeli political interests.

b.   Confronting Syria's alliance with Hizbollah and Iran, and its relations with the terror organizations: Syria will likely be hard-pressed to compromise on this at an early stage for fear that it may lose out both ways. As talks progress Israel will be able to ask Syria to desist from direct or indirect cooperation between Syria and Iran and Hizbollah that harms Israel (for example, transferring Iranian military aid via Syria to Hizbollah). However, Israel cannot expect Syria to commit to a complete severing of ties. It should ask for a total end to cooperation in hostile activity against Israel. Israel should demand that Syria sever its links with the terror organizations, which stands to be a relatively easy matter compared with the first issue.

c.    Bringing Lebanon into the talks: For Israel, it is important to conduct negotiations with Syria and Lebanon together, in order to help Israel achieve its strategic objectives in the northern sector. If Lebanon cannot be included, the treaty should include specific conditions that will improve Israel’s situation in this arena too.

d.    The United States: The current administration has reservations about the Asad regime and its policies, although analysis of American interests in the Middle East, such as stabilization in Iraq and Lebanon and isolation of Iran, shows that there are significant US interests to support such a move. Today Syria is a wrinkle in the pro-American front in the Middle East from Turkey through Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to Egypt. A new president will soon be installed in the White House, and his considerations towards Syria may be different. In this context, Asad said in an April 24 interview to al-Wattan: “Maybe at a later stage we can also talk with a future US administration about direct negotiations [between Syria and Israel].”

e.    Enlisting the moderate Arab camp to help achieve a treaty: This challenge should be relatively simple, as the “moderate” Arab camp (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) has a clear interest in extricating Syria from its pact with Iran. In view of the unprecedented high oil revenues of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, there is room for a US-led process of forming an impressive financial aid package for Syria, which will constitute a further incentive for choosing this course.

f.     Dealing with external opponents of the treaty: Progress in negotiations with Syria may lead to Hizbollah and Iran taking preventive measures, such as terror against Israel in various sectors (e.g., heating up the Lebanese sector, encouraging pressure terror attacks by Palestinian terror organizations).

g.    Alternatives regarding security arrangements and solutions for residents of the Golan Heights.

In conclusion, it appears that the benefits to be gained from the option outweigh the disadvantages. The list of challenges may be long and failure of the move will exact a price, but it would better for Israel to advance the move as far as possible, since to miss such an opportunity may incur a far more considerable strategic cost.

The Palestinian Channel

Here too, several basic premises underlie the discussion:

a.    The Palestinian camp is divided. Even if Abu Mazen reaches an agreement with Hamas over power sharing, such an agreement should be viewed as a tactical agreement only, whose long term stability is dubious.

b.    Hamas does not recognize Israel and negates its existence.

c.     Abu Mazen’s principal goal is to achieve an on the record permanent “shelf” agreement with Israel; in other words, it will not be applied until the conditions for its implementation develop. However, there are serious disputes between Abu Mazen and Israel with regard to the core issues of a permanent treaty, particularly the right of return.

d.     The United States is currently investing most of its energy in advancing the Palestinian channel, compared with a tepid approach to the Syrian channel. A new administration in Washington will re-examine the United States’ priorities.

Arguments in Favor of Negotiating a Permanent "Shelf" Agreement with Abu Mazen

a.     Such an agreement could show the two nations, Arab states, and the international community that there is an agreed basis for a permanent solution, and thereby advance the chance of signing such a treaty in the future.

b.     An agreement with Abu Mazen will provide him with an achievement that he can present to the Palestinian people as an alternative to Hamas.

c.      The more a permanent treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is delayed, the more the risks of despair and an escalation of the confrontation between the two nations increase. The strategic environment may also deteriorate, for example, the possibility of a rise of Islamic radicalism in the Arab world, a change in the stability of the moderate regimes, and so on. Thus it is preferable to work towards attaining a permanent agreement as quickly as possible.

Arguments against a Permanent "Shelf" Agreement with Abu Mazen

a.      Erosion of Israel’s basic positions: As it is currently not possible to implement a permanent settlement, and there is no guarantee that an agreement with Abu Mazen will be acceptable to the Palestinians in the future, any substantive concession is liable to harm Israel’s bargaining power at a later stage, when implementation of the permanent agreement is possible.

b.      There is no partner: Due to his weakness, Abu Mazen will be hard-pressed to make his positions more flexible, even if would like to. Abu Mazen will find it very difficult to advance solutions for the core issues, as well confront Israel’s demand to disarm the Palestinian state, which is a basic condition of Israel for negotiations. Thus, for example, a discussion with Abu Mazen over disarming Hamas in the Gaza Strip appears completely detached from reality.

c.       Israel would be better off not committing now to an agreement whose implementation will only take place several years hence. The strategic conditions may be completely different then, and an agreement of a different nature may be required.

d.      Failure of the talks could generate a crisis of expectations in the Palestinian and Israeli camps.

Arguments in Favor of Negotiating a Temporary Agreement

a.      A temporary agreement is relatively easy to discuss compared with an agreement for a permanent arrangement, and it is possible that even Hamas would not oppose this, if achieved by Abu Mazen.

b.      A sense of vitality of the peace process would be retained, with all that this implies.

Arguments against Negotiating a Temporary Agreement

a.      Until there is change in the Palestinian camp the most that can be achieved is “a temporary shelf agreement” with Abu Mazen (which incurs all the disadvantages of a permanent shelf agreement), or partial application in Judea and Samaria.

b.      A temporary agreement will reduce Israel’s bargaining power when it comes to negotiating the permanent agreement. For example, a withdrawal from the Arab districts of Jerusalem may lead to the loss of a bargaining chip in negotiations over Jerusalem, e.g., harm the Israeli position in negotiations over “the right of return” (the claim would be made that a reduction in the number of Arabs in East Jerusalem alone will allow Israel to absorb 250,000 refugees without affecting the demographic balance).

c.       At this stage Abu Mazen opposes an agreement of this type, and is aiming for a permanent status agreement.

Also discussed is the possibility of negotiating security-defense understandings with Abu Mazen. These would include security issues, municipal matters, economics, and social issues and would not include political issues, such as change of status of C areas to B areas. Arguments in favor of this idea include the possibility of strengthening the Abu Mazen camp with these understandings, to enable him to return to a full political process later; security advantages; and the improvement of the Palestinians’ humanitarian situation. Arguments against the idea contend that this option does not solve any fundamental problems but at the same time limits Israel’s security room for maneuver, i.e., it will be difficult to operate against Hamas without harming the agreement

There is also the possibility of negotiating security-economic understandings with Hamas. Considerations in favor include the possibility of a period of security calm and a partial solution for the Palestinians’ humanitarian problems. In addition, one should not rule out the possibility that Hamas’ consolidation as the administrator the Gaza Strip may lead to changes in its conduct towards Israel (it might prefer to secure its achievements rather than renew terror against Israel, which would prompt an Israeli reaction that would cancel its achievements).

However, stopping Israeli military activity will facilitate Hamas’ military buildup in general, and strengthen its infrastructure in Judea and Samaria in particular. The ball will then be in the Hamas court to start a confrontation at a time that suits it. In addition, an agreement would acknowledge the territorial consolidation of an extremist Islamic entity that is trying to destroy Israel and is an ally of Iran, in addition to the existence of such an entity (Hizbollah) on the northern front. An agreement with Hamas may be interpreted by certain elements in the Arab world as manifestation of Israeli weakness, as Israel did not succeed in gaining a military victory. Finally, an agreement with Hamas is liable to weaken the Abu Mazen camp, thereby harming the chance of returning to negotiations with a party that is interested in a political settlement with Israel.

In theory, there is also an option of conducting political talks with Hamas. Engaging in this requires a real change in the Palestinian camp (complete takeover by Hamas, or a Hamas-Fatah unity regime). A full takeover by Hamas may provide a stable solution, but that is contingent on a change in the Hamas stance on Israel, as well as a reversal in Israel’s stance on Hamas. A political treaty with a two-headed Palestinian regime (Hamas-Fatah) is problematic, as it may be unstable and Hamas may distance itself from its commitment to agreements such a government signs. However, there is nothing to prevent the signing of such an agreement in the security-economic area, which will serve Israel’s interests.


The peace process between Israel and the Arabs has not progressed for more than a decade. The tracks described here outline the potential of advancing the peace process with Syria and Lebanon. While it is difficult to say how much Asad’s declarations express determination, i.e., how much he wants peace and how far he is capable of furthering it (in terms of the constraints placed on him), it seems that Syria has good reasons to opt for peace, and from Israel’s point of view it is clearly worthwhile to realize the full potential of this effort. Even if the current administration in Washington does not change its position on Syria, one can identify American interests in Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which may guide the next administration. Meanwhile, it is important for Israel to continue trying to advance the negotiations, or at least to keep open the channels with Syria via mediators, such as the Turkish channel.

In the Palestinian arena, it appears that in the foreseeable future there is no option of a political settlement that will benefit Israel, notwithstanding the optimism that has been shown recently by elements in the Israeli government and the US administration with regard to progress towards reaching such an agreement. While it may be possible to reach a “shelf agreement” with the Abu Mazen camp, it seems that the harm that such an agreement would inflict on Israel may be greater than the potential benefit. This does not mean that Israel ought to refuse to continue negotiating with the Palestinians, but negotiations should be contingent on not foregoing assets that would harm its position in talks over a permanent settlement in the future. For now, Israel can work to improve its relations with the Palestinians through security-economic understandings. In this regard, the relatively accessible option is negotiations over understandings with Abu Mazen, although this will not change the security reality in the Gaza Strip unless there is a change in the relations between Fatah and Hamas in the form of a unity government.

Shmuel Even is an economist specializing in Middle East security issues. Dr. Even's publications deal with Middle East economies, the defense budget, the world oil market, intelligence, and terrorism. He is CEO of Multi Concept (Consultants) Ltd., and has served as a strategic and economic consultant to government offices and leading private companies in Israel.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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