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How to Defang the Rejectionist Crescent

For the United States, there's more than just Iran itself at stake in the Middle East. Ahmadenijad's country is the central plank in a new, "rejectionist crescent" with big geographic and political sweep. If left in place, this new alignment will further weaken America's regional allies. But if Syria can be coaxed away from the rejectionist axis, Iran's spoiler capacity will be diminished. That's why America's attention and efforts need to turn to Damascus and its relationship with Jerusalem. In the Middle East game of dominoes, a Syrian-Israeli peace deal will seriously challenge Iran's hegemony and will in turn bolster America's friends.

It isn't the first time that U.S. and Israeli interests coincide. When the U.S. attacked Iraq in the summer of 2003, Israel was virtually its greatest supporter -- because had its own reason for wanting Saddam Hussein toppled: Along with Saddam Hussein, Israel's hostile "eastern front" -- which had been propped up primarily by Syria, Jordan and Iraq -- collapsed. This front had first been pierced in 1989, as Syria reeled from the decline of its Soviet patron and was further weakened in 1994, when Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 2003, regime change in Iraq effectively led to the front's demise, thereby shifting the region's strategic balance in Israel's favor.

Nearly ten years later, the strategic balance in the fluid Middle East has shifted once again, another demonstration of the Middle-East ever shifting sands. The new front is not in the east, but in the north. It stretches from Iran through Syria to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and may come to include Israel's historic partner, Turkey, whose recent Islamist turn is of revolutionary proportions. Adding the Hamas in Gaza into the mix affirms the front's appellation as the "Rejectionist Crescent." This strong partnership is already proving to be a formidable challenge to the U.S. supported coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and indirectly Israel.

For Israel, this poses a new predicament. Even if it can prevail in the event of another war, its enemies have identified a superior way to undermine and damage it by launching long-range missiles against civilian areas. Thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets and hundreds of Israel casualties over the last decade are proof positive of this strategy.

Thus, if there is a new outbreak of war (Israel's history demonstrates that war erupts once every decade), the IDF will defeat its enemies, but the price in loss of human life will be heavier than in past confrontations.

This new reality explains the reasoned conduct of Israel's generals. In stark contrast to rash politicians, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who boastfully threaten Syria and its leader, the IDF wants Mr. Netanyahu to open talks with Israel's neighbor to the north.

It isn't a new posture for IDF commanders, who've consistently argued for a "Syria track" over the last decade. But now, they've got additional, compelling reasons. True, most Israelis have been lulled into indifference by the quiet northern border (the last Israeli-Syrian conflagration was in November 1985) and therefore see no reason to make a deal requiring a withdrawal from the Golan, which is a Syrian deal breaker. Beautiful landscapes, good Golan wine and flourishing tourism are all more attractive than intangible peace.

But the senior military brass know this quiet is nothing but an optical illusion. They've learned that in the Middle East, nothing remains static and political deadlock invariably leads to war. In 1973, Israel slept through one such "deadlock" and was brutally awakened by Egypt's Yom Kippur offensive.

For this very reason, the IDF proposes a peace deal with Syria, even at the price of painful territorial concessions in the Golan. This position stems neither from ideology nor appeasement. After all, no one understands Israel's security imperatives better than its combat-weary commanding officers. Rather, they're guided by tough-minded real-politic that's spawned by a new geopolitical context. Peace with Syria is aimed at achieving strategic goals -- notably breaking its ties to the rejectionist crescent, thereby weakening that axis. Like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in proximity talks mediated by the Turks, the IDF prefers that Syria abandon ties to Iran and Hezbollah in advance of formal negotiations. This is also what Washington needs from Damascus. But even if this is unattainable as a precondition, talks are worth pursuing as long as the break from Iran is guaranteed after the deal is done.

Less than a decade ago, former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya'alon (now Vice PM in the Netanyahu government), advised then PM Ariel Sharon to respond favorably to Syria's overtures. Mr. Sharon answered that Washington was opposed. Now, when President Obama is normalizing relations with Syria and sending an ambassador to Damascus for his own reasons, the U.S. should assist in an Israeli-Syrian peace process. Once again, Israeli and American interests coincide -- this time, in the desire to defang the rejectionist crescent.

Prof. Peri, a former advisor to Prime Minister Rabin, is Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, UMD. His latest book is Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy.

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