Syria's Poison Pill

06/18/2007 06:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I recently was invited to be part of a small group luncheon in the home of a Syrian representative in Washington, DC. The lunch was conducted under so-called Chatham House rules, which ban citing the specific location of the meeting or the participants but otherwise allow free discussion of what was said. Much of what I heard, clearly in preparation for the next day's visit of the Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallem to Washington, was far from new or surprising. One aside, though, I found quite revealing. Only once during the lunch did the Syrian representative let his guard down, when he allowed that there was a poison pill in the Syrian peace gestures toward Israel, which made the offers seem to me insincere at best, dangerous at worst.

To explain nature of the poison pill requires for me to first set the context. The Syrian representative stated repeatedly that Syria is seeking to mend its relationship with the U.S. He allowed that it had good connections with all the factions in Iraq, and hence could help the U.S. achieve the political settlements of the civil war that the U.S. so badly needs. He similarly related that Syria has a good relationship with Iran and could serve here too, as an intermediary. He complained bitterly about the Bush administration line that if Syria wanted to mend the relationship, there was no need for high level talks, that "Syria knew what it is supposed to do", namely to stop the flow of fighters to Iraq and stop meddling in Lebanon. He wanted unconditional talks with the Bush administration, and -- with Israel.

There was talk, he stated, in the Middle East of another Syrian-Israeli military confrontation, which the Syrian representative characterized as deeply regrettable, as the issues could readily be resolved peacefully, thorough negotiations, although he stressed that if Israel wanted war, Syria was more than ready. "They would have another surprise of the kind they just encountered in Lebanon," he warned. He recounted with some amusement the visit to Damascus of U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which she relayed a message from the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that "Israel was ready to engage in peace talks," to be stated in public the next day. The representative said that President Assad smiled when he heard what Pelosi claimed and responded only, "Let's wait and see." The next day Olmert denied that he sent such a message, the Syrian envoy said. He then repeated that Syria was ready at any time for unconditional peace talks but added this time that, "Israel would never agree, because it would entail that Syria having a border with Hamas through which it could arm Hamas at will." In other words, he implied that the peace gestures were phony ones, because Syria knew that it entailed a condition Israel could not live with.

The greater importance of all this is that as Israel continues to indicate its willingness to talk peace with Syria and about a two-state solution, it is setting itself up for a trap, and not only on the border with Syria. When Israel refers to a Palestinian state, all but a few select diplomats who specialize in the Middle East assume that such a state would be a fully sovereign state, which of course would be free to import all the arms and even foreign troops it wanted. Israel, however, seems to presume that it will continue to control the borders of a future Palestinian state, along the borders with Syria and Jordan, similar to the way it now controls the border of Gaza with Egypt and above the Gaza sea and airport, to ensure that the new state will remain free of heavy weapons and foreign troops. If this will be indeed the case Israel will then stand accused of turning the new Palestinian state into a prison, just the way now many view its treatment of Gaza. Moreover, whatever aggressive tactics the Palestinian state employs will be viewed as a "natural" response to Israel's imposing tactics.

It follows that when Israel resumes the course of seeking a peaceful settlement with Syria and the Palestinians, one surely hopes for, such a move would be better served if Israel ceased to rely on a too clever by half, legalistic distinction between autonomous lands and sovereign ones. It has to make it clear that peace presumes a Palestinian state with limited access to arms -- somewhat like Okinawa and Costa Rica. And it believes that such a deal will require effective enforcement, say by a European or UN Peace Keeping force. Otherwise, a peace deal may well seem to Israelis to include a poison pill.

This piece first appeared in Haaretz. Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, was just published by Yale University Press.