It sounds more than a little fanciful to imagine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signing a historic peace agreement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the White House lawn, with President Barack Obama looking on. Taken at face value, Israel's new hard-line government is not exactly campaigning for the Nobel Peace Prize.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Netanyahu's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, sent aggressive signals, renouncing some of the relatively dovish positions of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert whose government spent its final year in office negotiating indirectly with Syria and directly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Lieberman rejected the Bush Administration's Annapolis peace initiative, under which Olmert and Abbas had talked about the parameters of a Palestinian state. And he insisted that Israel would never withdraw from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. "Whoever thinks that he will achieve something by way of concessions no, he will only invite more pressure and more wars," Lieberman said. "If you want peace, prepare for war." (See pictures from Israel's recent war in Gaza.)
Despite his hard-line inflammatory rhetoric, however, Lieberman may be a pragmatist. Unlike many on Israel's right including Netanyahu Lieberman supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a Ha'aretz interview after taking office, Lieberman said Israel should abide by the 2002 Roadmap, which calls for a Palestinian state. The Roadmap obliges the Palestinians to cease violence, dismantle the capabilities of terrorist organizations and reform their political institutions before any movement toward the creation of a Palestinian state. But it also obliges Israel to freeze settlement construction and dismantle all settlement outposts built since March 2001. Lieberman appears to recognize those obligations, and in the Ha'aretz interview, he mocked Olmert and his team as hypocrites who advocated peace but did little to achieve it. "How many outposts did Olmert, [Ehud] Barak and [Tzipi] Livni evacuate?" he said.
It remains to be seen whether Lieberman is willing to accept a truly independent Palestinian state Netanyahu has indicated that he won't, insisting, in the name of the Jewish state's security, that Israel control the air space and borders of such an entity and have veto power over its military and foreign policies. Netanyahu's track record, however, is more pragmatic than ideological. Despite his open loathing of Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu and his previous government signed a deal in 1998 with the late PLO leader for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank, including the sensitive biblical town of Hebron.
It's worth noting, of course, that even had the more dovish Livni been in charge, peace with the Palestinians would not be achieved anytime soon. That's because political divisions on the Palestinian and Arab side are an even bigger mess than the hawkish Netanyahu's hodgepodge coalition of ultranationalist hard-liners like Lieberman and longtime peace negotiators like his Defense Minister, Labor Party leader Barak.
Still, Netanyahu is experienced enough to know that his success as a leader of Israel will depend substantially on his ability to manage the peace process and to at least appear to be making progress. And that may make him more open to pursuing the Syria option.
Publicly, Netanyahu continues to take a firm stance, rejecting the idea of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in order to achieve peace with Syria. Lieberman talks only of "peace for peace," rather than land for peace. But Netanyahu knows that no peace deal is possible without returning the Syrian territory captured in the war of 1967, and he may be ready to find a formula for its return if Syria is truly ready for a peace deal. Syrian President Assad, having established firm control of the often opaque regime he inherited from his late father Hafez al-Assad, appears to be willing to pick up where his father left off in seeking a deal with Israel. Assad was instrumental in starting indirect, Turkey-mediated talks with Israel despite initial opposition by the Bush Administration. In the past, two former Labor Prime Ministers, the late Yitzhak Rabin and Barak, had been ready to withdraw from almost all of the Golan Heights. Netanyahu himself may have been, too: during his first term as Prime Minister, he reportedly ran a back-channel negotiation with the Syrians.
Obama recently sent two senior officials to Damascus to test the waters, signaling Washington's willingness to end its campaign to isolate Syria. And early success on the Israel-Syria track would do wonders for the Administration's wider Middle East ambitions. Not only would it formally cement the 40-plus years of relative calm on the Israeli-Syrian frontier, it would potentially detach Syria from its alliance with Iran and enlist Damascus in moderating or eliminating two key radical elements Hamas and Hizballah on Israel's borders. Iran's resulting loss of influence in the region could, in turn, help induce Tehran to rethink its more confrontational positions, particularly on the nuclear issue.
A Syria-first approach to peace talks has often encountered resistance in diplomatic circles, on the grounds that the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the Palestinian problem. That may be true, but the counterargument might go that in the Middle East, you have to play the hand you're dealt. Despite their hawkish talk, Netanyahu and Lieberman are unlikely to resist an opportunity to conclude a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Nor is Obama.