Thursday, August 30, 2007

Features from Common Ground News Service

Title: Syria first
Author: Alon Liel
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007
Word Count: 1007

Title: Assuage Assad
Author: Moshe Ma'oz
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007
Word Count: 861

Title: Families speak up
Author: Robi Damelin
Source: The Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007
Word Count: 696

Each article is available in Arabic, English and Hebrew; I'd be happy to send you any translation. Please feel free to republish the article(s) and let me know by sending an email to:


Syria first

Alon Liel

TEL AVIV - Once again, the US peacemaking efforts in the Middle East are focused on an international convention -- which is to include, this time, only the region's moderate forces. Could such a convention lead to a breakthrough, or are the Middle East's "nice guys" going to grumble yet again in President Bush's parlour? None of the hostile forces that Israel will have to come to terms with in the future, including the Syrian President Bashar Assad, were invited. Will this prove to be a wise move?Saudi Arabia is no key to changeMuch has been said about President Bush's great fondness for those Middle East players who fervently comply with American authority, and his intense loathing for those elements who dare defy him. Lately, one of President Bush's favourite regional players has been Saudi Arabia.Though it is part of Washington's Middle East policy to commend and praise the Saudis for their positive involvement, Saudi Arabia is not an important player as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned. The "Saudi Initiative," mainly entailing Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in return for general Arab recognition of Israel, primarily relies on three parties to the conflict -- Syria, Israel and the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia may be an important player in the Gulf area and in the global oil market, but in the Arab-Israeli conflict it is only a guest. Bashar Assad and even Abu-Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) will not let the Saudis interfere in their negotiations with Israel about the implementation of the withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Only the parties to the borders conflict will be directly involved in these deliberations. Saudi Arabia may be able to exercise significant influence over the atmosphere in the area, but only by posting an ambassador in Tel-Aviv, and doing so fairly soon. And I am quite sure they will take no such step without Palestinian-Syrian approval.The Republican leadership of the United States, desperate to show some positive progress in its Middle-East track record, may be able to score some points with the American public if indeed the Saudis attend the convention planned for this fall. But the parties directly involved in the conflict will derive very little benefit from the Saudi presence.Disbanding the Palestinian peopleThe "convention of the docile" in the fall of 2007 might do away with the last chances of creating a sustainable Palestinian state in the Middle East. A diplomatic settlement which only Abu-Mazen agrees to, without Hamas's support, would be like the peace treaty Israel signed with Amin Jumayil's government in Lebanon in 1984. If American money and arms will be able to divide the Palestinian people, then perhaps the dictum of our childhood, directly quoting Prime Minister Golda Meir, might indeed be true: "There is no Palestinian people." Inviting the "nice Palestinians" to a party in Washington, where they will be showered with plenty, while trying to isolate, boycott and humiliate the "bad Palestinians" will lead, in the best of cases, to the creation of two Palestinian states: A pro-American one in the West Bank and a pro-Iranian state in the Gaza strip. In the worst of cases (if these talks fail), the convention will further entrench the diplomatic stalemate and diminish the chances for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.It is in Israel's interest to revive the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, as Russia and Egypt suggest, and not to contribute to a further and wider rift between both Palestinian organizations, as Washington proposes.Syria firstThough the Palestinian situation has become tremendously complicated, the window of opportunity is wide open as far as the Syrians are concerned. For the past four years Bashar Assad has been hinting that he desires negotiations with Israel. In the past year he has even done so overtly, and more than once. At the outset of his eighth year in power, Assad's behaviour is more confident and unequivocal. There are many signs that he wishes to negotiate with Israel about the future of the Golan Heights and peace, while also negotiating with the US about his country's future policy in the Middle East. A nuclearly armed, fundamentalist Iran is no natural ally for Syria. The Syrians are currently interested in an "Egyptian deal" with the US as well as with Israel. After all, the treaty with Egypt generously compensated Cairo for turning away from the USSR.This Syrian message must have been understood in Washington; it was indeed distinctly perceived, but rejected. President Bush wished to punish Bashar Assad for his support of anti-American elements in the area. This vindictiveness has prevented the White House from understanding this opportunity. Creating a split between Syria and Iran will be of much greater strategic value than an international conference, already defined by Hamas as a mere photo opportunity.As anyone living in the troubled Middle East knows, windows of opportunity are quickly shut. The Syrian window may also be closed soon. This will happen the next time Iran's President Ahmedinijad visits Damascus. The last time the Iranian President visited Syria he handed out checks, and in his next visit he will come to harvest his crop. And once Damascus cashes on Teheran's checks, Syria will not be strong enough to extricate itself from its alliance with the Iranians. Only an immediate American-Syrian high-level meeting can prevent the closure of the present opening. But President Bush has not authorized such a meeting. "Prime Minister Olmert does not need me in order to make peace with Syria," said President Bush in his joint press conference with Olmert, proving yet again that he has little insight of the political processes in our area.With the international conference coming up, Israel should be aware of the contradiction between its own interests and those of the US. Should Israel blindly follow Washington's present policy, it may expect prolonged conflicts along its borders with the triple front of Hamas-Hizbullah-Syria. Washington will be content with consolidating and strengthening peace solely within the "docile coalition", Israel, on the other hand, needs much more done to ensure an inclusive outcome.


* Dr. Alon Liel was Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Office during Ehud Barak's term. He currently teaches at the Tel-Aviv University, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007, Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.**********

Assuage Assad

Moshe Ma'oz

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - The ideal way to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours is through a Madrid-like regional peace process based on the Arab League initiative (2002). The logic of such a comprehensive approach is that some of Israel's disputes with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians are interrelated, and a regional peace can serve the interests of all parties and sustain productive coexistence. For example, the crucial issue of Palestinian refugees must be settled with Syrian and Lebanese participation, since some 300,000 refugees reside in each of these countries. Regional designs to settle this issue, as well as to develop water resources, tourism and the like, can provide fruits of peace and a solid basis for Arab-Israeli partnership. Unfortunately, Israeli leaders lack the courage and vision to embark upon a comprehensive peace process, particularly with Syrian participation - a notion that is strongly rejected by most Israeli Jews (some 65%) and the Bush administration. On the face of it, there is a fairly good chance to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, owing to Bush's encouragement, the support of many Israelis and the insistence of Abu Mazen. But in reality such a process is likely to encounter enormous obstacles, notably the issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and the role of Hamas in the Gaza strip. Israeli and Palestinian leaders are incapable of settling these critical problems, at least for the foreseeable future.By contrast, an Israeli-Syrian peace process, which will also include Lebanon, has a better chance to succeed, considering mutual interests and past experience. Indeed, an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement was almost reached in 1999/2000 under active mediation by former President Clinton. It provided for the return of the Golan to Syria along the pre-1967 border, as well as its demilitarisation and effective supervision. It also provided for diplomatic and economic relations between Syria and Israel. The main obstacle that prevented the signing of a peace agreement was a dispute over a short and narrow strip of land - 12 km long and a few hundred meters wide - along the northeastern tip of Lake Tiberias. With mutual goodwill, this dispute can be settled by turning that strip of land into a Syrian-Israeli park under joint sovereignty for instance.Despite the changing strategic and political circumstances in the region, it is still in the vested interest of Israel, Syria and Lebanon to reach peaceful coexistence; however, there are significant obstacles that can prevent or delay a peace process among them. All three governments wish to avoid another war that is likely to be devastating, particularly to Syria and Lebanon. Bashar Assad and his Alawi-Sunni elite may also lose their power if Syria is defeated. Both Syria and Israel worry that, in the case of war, Lebanon may pose a threat to their national security and other vital interests; Israel is deeply concerned about the potential menace by Hizbullah, whereas Syria worries about a possible Israeli invasion through Lebanon's Beqaa valley into the Damascus region. In addition, Damascus is interested in re-establishing its strategic control over Lebanon as well as a pro-Syrian government in Beirut that would put off the Hariri investigation and provide channels for Syrian exports, banking and labour. Within a regional peace agreement, Israel may acknowledge Syrian interests in Lebanon, provided Damascus stops arming, and even helps disarm Hizbullah. Another important and related Israeli condition would be that Syria disengages from Iran, Israel's avowed enemy. If Assad agrees to meet these conditions and directly appeals to the Israeli public to reach a peace agreement, it is possible that more Israeli Jews will be ready to give back the Golan in return for peace with Syria. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Assad will not disengage from his strategic allies and the rising forces in the region - Iran and Hizbullah - unless he obtains American and Arab guarantees to uphold his vital interests and needs. He will thus expect from the United States and the major Arab states to acknowledge Syrian interests in Lebanon - defusing the Hariri investigation being one of them - as well as to increase financial assistance to Syria, particularly from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. From Washington, Damascus will possibly require a commitment not to attack Syria, to erase its name from the list of countries supporting terror, and abolish the recently imposed sanctions on Syria. The major Sunni Arab states may be inclined to accept Assad's requests, provided he abandons the Shia alliance with Iran and Hizbullah. However, President Bush will continue to insist that Damascus first submit to his demands, namely to disengage from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas (the previous request to democratise the Syrian regime has been practically dropped). It is almost certain that Israeli leaders will not breach Bush's practical veto on peace negotiations with Assad, even though it is in Israel's interest to seek peace with Syria. However, among the Israeli political and military elite, there has recently developed a significant inclination to sound out Assad's peace overtures. It is now a challenge for Israel and other US allies to induce Bush to negotiate with Assad with no pre-conditions, as the Baker-Hamilton report suggests, or at least to withdraw his objection to Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese peace talks.


* Moshe Ma'oz is Professor Emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007, Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


Families speak up
Robi Damelin

TEL AVIV - The Parents Circle - Families Forum, consisting of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families, is a non-profit organization supporting reconciliation and tolerance in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. The organisation acts as a people-to-people advocacy group, with family members sharing painful narratives that greatly impact those exposed to their message of hope. There is an implicit trust present in the work as each group member has lost an immediate family member in the conflict and has therefore paid the highest price for what they are saying and for the work they are doing. In many cases, Palestinian members have spent years in jail for their political beliefs, giving a greater dimension to their loyalty to the cause, and establishing a standing in their community.The Parents Circle is geared towards creating a framework for a reconciliation process when peace agreements are signed -- feeling strongly that this is the only way to create peace and not simply a cease-fire.The main thrust of the work is to foster understanding of both the Israeli and the Palestinian narrative, believing it is impossible to have empathy for a future partner when one does not understand the culture or personal story of the 'other'. To this end, the Parents Circle spends many hours in classroom dialogues. In 2006 more than 1,000 of these meetings were held with 16 and 17 year old Israeli and Palestinian students.In addition to classroom activities, art is used as a vehicle of communication. In 2006, 135 top Israeli and Palestinian artists created the "Offering Reconciliation Exhibit", a travelling gallery of ceramic bowls illustrating messages of reconciliation and peace. The exhibition, having opened in Tel-Aviv, is now travelling throughout the US, including: Massachusetts, the World Bank in Washington DC, and most recently, the United Nations in New York City. In November, the ceramic works will be auctioned at SOFA (Sculpture Objects and Functional Art Expositions) in Chicago, with the funds going towards education projects. Members of the Parents Circle have accompanied the tour and are using each stop as an opportunity to give lectures and run educational programmes. Tracing histories"Knowing is the Beginning" is the name of a very special project created by the Forum. It is a way for group members to understand the historical family tree and the personal narrative of the 'other'. It started with 140 Israeli and Palestinian members visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem -- a first -- as never before had such a large group of Palestinians and Israelis visited together. The visit was not intended to compare suffering, but for the Palestinian members to understand what makes the Jewish narrative so painful. Likewise, a group also visited a Palestinian village, now near Bet Shemesh in Israel, which existed before 1948. Two Palestinian members, whose families hailed from this village, were deeply moved when revisiting and finding nothing but an old well. This project will continue until the end of the 2007, with each side getting to know the other in the most intimate of ways. Another fascinating journey in this project happened recently. Boaz, an Israeli member, traced his family history to the city of Hevron. During a group visit there, Boaz discovered that his grandfather, a doctor during the riots of 1929, was saved by a Palestinian family, and that he in turn, tended to the Palestinian wounded. The group then visited the home of Ossama, a Palestinian member who had lost family members when a kibbutz -- of which Boaz's mother was a founding member -- was attacked. These incredible stories go to illustrate just how intertwined our lives are and how we must understand each other with empathy even if we do not agree.In addition to the projects already mentioned, the Parents Circle also runs: "Kol Hashalom", a bilingual program produced and broadcast for the "All for Peace" radio station; a summer camp for children of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families; and the "Hello Shalom - Hello Salaam" chat line, where Israelis and Palestinians can talk to one another on a toll-free line. Since October of 2002, more than a million calls have been made. All of this work will surely go a long way for preparing both sides for a long-term reconciliation framework.

###* Robi Damelin is a member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 30 August 2007, Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.**********