One unfortunate byproduct of President Obama’s foolish attempt to make his mark on the Middle East by pressuring Israel to abandon all settlement construction is this: Obama’s failure appears to have brought French President Sarkozy back onto the stage. Anxious to make his mark in international relations, and probably hoping to show-up Obama for whom he seems to have little regard and more than a little envy, Sarkozy has offered to mediate talks between Syria and Israel.
As one would expect, Sarkozy’s move is a much shrewder gambit than anything Obama has yet come up with. Syria, having rebuilt its relations with Europe, has an incentive to go along with Sarkozy and see if Israel is in the mood to make concessions. Israel, perceived as the villain of the region not just by Europe but also by the Obama administration, has an incentive to demonstrate that it will talk seriously to at least one of its adversaries.
But Jonathan Spyer argues, convincingly I think, that Israel has nothing tangible to gain from talking with Syria:
The formula for success in negotiations between Israel and Syria is no longer the ’90s recipe of land for peace. A breakthrough in Jerusalem-Damascus negotiations would be predicated on the basis of “land for strategic realignment.” That is, Syria would be expected to abandon its regional alliance with Iran in return for Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan Heights.
Damascus, however, has made abundantly clear that such a realignment is not on the table. The reasons are fairly obvious. Syria’s current stance of alliance with Iran gives the Damascus regime most of what it needs. Syria is seen as a vital part of any regional diplomatic process, because of its ability to spoil progress through its alignment with radical forces.
As Syria’s recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and France suggests, keeping the alliance with Iran comes at very little cost. And there is a deeper sense that the Damascus regime is comfortable with its place in the Iranian alliance, which enables it to indulge in the nationalist chest-beating and poses of “resistance,” which it enjoys.
Spyer also believes that negotiating with Syria would carry a substantial price for Israel:
The bigger picture of the Israeli and broader Western interest in the region requires the containment and ultimately the rolling back of the currently emboldened Iranian-led alliance. Reviving the prospect of Israeli territorial concessions to Syria, at a time when Damascus is engaged in sponsoring organizations engaged in proxy war with Israel and others would be to reward aggression. It would furnish an additional argument in the armory of Iran and its supporters who maintain, not without reason, that the camp facing them is weak and responds to pressure by making concessions.
This consequence seems not to matter to the French, for whom relevance on the international stage is the name-of-the-game. But it should matter to the Israelis whose primary concern must be survival in the face of the growing threat from Iran, its allies, and its proxies.