WEEKEND READ: Ending the 60-year war

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been the defining feature of its region for 60 years. The new possibility of its dissolution promises to fundamentally reshape the region.

The Israeli-Syrian peace process lurched toward fruition on Thursday.

Middle Eastern – and especially Levantine – politics are sufficiently labyrinthine and Byzantine to be classified as a health hazard in most Western states. We could weave you a story of how the Iranians fear losing their hold in Lebanon and so are pushing for violence, how the Americans are looking for subtle ways to sabotage the talks in order maintain leverage over Iran, or how Syria and Israel’s respective economic and military interests actually dovetail quite nicely in southern Lebanon. But sometimes it does an outside observer a great service to simply not get inside the minds of those involved. Wednesday was one of those days.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a man under considerable public pressure at home, announced that the time was rapidly approaching for Israel to open direct, public talks with Syria. And far from leaving such a meeting in the airy realm of maybe-land, Olmert even publicly indicated that he would be meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Paris on July 13.

As a general rule one does not garner a great deal of support among one’s people by posing for photo-ops with the leaders of states who are considered enemies. So either Olmert has lost his mind (unlikely) or the informal peace talks which Turkey has been hosting for weeks are generating sufficient progress for Olmert to take the plunge. To take the historical view, Israeli leaders only met in person with their Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts when those respective peace deals were in the home stretch. Terms of the deal are certainly nebulous at present, but we suspect they would involve a combination of land transfers and demilitarised zones that would secure Israel’s northern borders and guarantee Syria’s economic interests in Lebanon. Hezbollah would have to go, and it would probably be Syria to stuff it into a bag and throw it in the river.

An Israeli-Syrian deal would do more than remove the last major spectre threatening Israeli security (existing deals with Egypt and Jordan already cover Israel’s other borders, and a deal with Syria would have to cover Lebanon as well). The Arab-Israeli conflict has been the key feature molding regional developments for 60 years. Its dissolution would fundamentally reshape the region.

Many of the United States’ rivals have used the Israeli-Arab conflict as a lever to pry open the region and challenge American power, with the most obvious example being the Soviet Union. Arab hostility toward Israel spilled over to the United States and caused the 1973 oil embargo. For decades Arab-Israeli disagreements have fuelled Islamism and militancy throughout the region. In the case of a deal with Syria, the only remaining group with the opportunity to take a shot at Israel will be the Palestinians, a nationality with fewer friends, tools, money and options than ever before.

We do not mean to paint a picture of sunshine and joy for the region, and an end to the hot portions of the Arab-Israeli conflict should not be confused with regional "peace.” This is still the Middle East after all, and the role of Iran – a state that is not Arab and so is not included in the pending deal – has yet to be determined and so remains at the very minimum an Israeli and American security concern. But an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot help but take some of the heat out of the region’s troubled politics. The United States, for one, will be glad to be able to turn at least some of its attention elsewhere.

Ironically, the greatest future challenge to US power in the Levant may well come from the country that has long been America’s staunchest ally: Israel. Israel’s existence requires one of two things: a heavy qualitative technological edge over its neighbors, or an external sponsor willing to guarantee Israeli security. Should Syria join Egypt and Jordan in standing down from the regional cold war that has marked the years since the 1973 war, Israel would not only be freed from having to maintain a high alert status, but the rationale for a firm alliance with the United States would erode somewhat. That’s not to say that Israel is itching for a break with Washington or that the two powers’ interests would otherwise be diametrically opposed – far from it – but that if Syria and Israel can bury the hatchet, then Israel will have something that it has not had for some time: room to manoeuvre.

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