Guest Post by Daniel Levy: No Sphinx, but a Peace Challenge from Damascus


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Daniel Levy served as the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative and directs the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force.
Israel’s preeminent Syria expert, Moshe Ma’oz, famously dubbed that country’s former leader Hafaz al-Assad “the Sphinx of Damascus” in his political biography of that title, an inscrutable man, impossible to decipher.
Almost ten years into office, his son and successor Bashar al-Assad has yet to have collected too many nick-names but his ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was anything but sphinx-like in openly embracing the peace process and setting forth a challenge to both the new Israeli and America governments on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show yesterday. Zakaria’s hour of thoughtful policy discourse on CNN has become for me one of the few things worth watching on a Sunday.
Ambassador Moustapha surprised many yesterday and made headlines in Israel when he countered Fareed Zakaria’s skepticism that progress on peace would be possible given the new Likud-Lieberman government in Jerusalem by suggesting that, “It’s better to deal with someone like Lieberman than someone like Livni – Lieberman is candid and says what he believes,” which he contrasted to Livni and colleagues talking peace while making war, notably in Gaza.
This is an interesting position to take not least from a senior Syrian representative and contrasts with what many others in the Arab world have been arguing – it also seems to me more realistic and constructive especially given the lead peacemaking role that Moustapha penciled in for the Obama administration.
Perhaps even subconsciously, Syria seems to be sending the message – you want to make peace, deal with the bad guys, whichever side they are on (and that might as much be a self-reflective comment as it is a critique of Israel’s new leadership).
Ambassador Moustapha did not have an easy time in Washington for the last years of the Bush administration. He would sometimes joke that he was the closest thing DC had to an ambassador of the Axis of Evil and was treated as such. But he stuck around and reached out to whoever was willing to listen, notably to some of the key players in Congress on both the Democrat and Republican sides, a number of whom have visited Damascus in recent years.
Judging by his performance yesterday, Moustapha seems to be suggesting that now is the time to shift Syrian public diplomacy toward the US up by several gears. In response to Zakaria’s question about Obama’s election victory and how it was received in Syria, the ambassador stressed that, “America has vindicated herself… after eight terrible years,” describing how the ordinary Syrian was, “overjoyed.”
The ambassador’s headline-generating readiness, even eagerness, to negotiate peace with a Likud-Lieberman government and his preference for them as a negotiating partner over Livni and co. is something that one can understand and even partially agree with. Again, the implicit message at least is almost to be saying – ‘everyone always criticizes our regime, while the Israeli side are no teddy bears either, so let’s just get over it, take a hard look at everyone’s key interests, including America’s, and get on with the serious business of getting a deal.’
Indeed, Avigdor Lieberman and what he represents is not really Syria’s problem or even America’s – he is primarily Israel’s problem (although given that the America-Israel relationship is to some degree based on shared values, a Lieberman reality in Israel is not a simple or comfortable thing).
There is of course also the argument that Netanyahu is in a stronger position to deliver on a deal than the center-left would be and as PM in the late-90’s, sent his personal envoy (former US ambassador Ronald Lauder) to convey messages to the Syrians of Bibi’s willingness to withdraw from the Golan .
Imad Moustapha told Zakaria that Syria would be ready for a similar peace deal that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan (i.e. land for security and cold peace) but would prefer for a comprehensive peace to prevail, in other words, for the Palestinian track to also be addressed thereby creating new dynamics and opportunities for relations in the region.
This contrasts with the positions that have begun to be articulated by some of the PA leadership in Ramallah and other US allies including Egypt. In public statements and op-eds, some of the Fatah-PA seems to be delighting in appearing to be the reasonable party set along-side the recalcitrant new bosses in Israel. They are suggesting that Israel meet preconditions (acknowledge two states and past agreements, freeze settlements) before negotiations can resume, and they are egging on a fight between Washington and Jerusalem.
While all that may sound fun, have a self-righteousness to it, and play well on CNN, I fail to see how it actually helps accomplish anything or how it advances an end of occupation and peace and security for both peoples. The last Israeli government continued building settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and maintained checkpoints and closures but that did not stop the Palestinians from negotiating. And even if Netanyahu, or even Lieberman for that matter, were to say those magic words – “two states” – as their predecessors have done, then would it actually bring such a reality any closer?
We seem then to be in a situation where both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ strategies lead to a dead-end. The PA-Ramallah leadership appears eager to score points, avoid internal reconciliation, and to get back to the meaningless roadmap and Annapolis process – a path to nowhere if ever there was one. The Likud-Lieberman government thinks that economic projects can deliver a happy occupied people and be a substitute for getting to grips with the basic political realities of territory and occupation – as if this approach has not been tried and stunningly failed for the last fifteen years.
The Syrian Ambassador, and here I agree with him, seems to be suggesting something very different – no preconditions, don’t be squeamish about who you talk to, a comprehensive regional peace, and most of all, get the Americans to lead and drive the process (as he put it, “a vigorous, creative role in brokering peace between Arabs and Israelis… Israel will be very careful not to say no to the American president”).
This won’t be easy but it seems like the right way to go given the current constellation of actors and our historical experience of the failed previous efforts that were over-reliant on bilateral negotiations. Rather than expend political capital on an argument with Netanyahu over the words “two states” or over a settlement developments in far flung corners of the West Bank, the Obama capital would be better invested in driving home a plan for peace.
The US should also allow for constructive progress in the US-Syria bilateral relationship even if the Israel-Syria track is in question, and that might already be happening given the visit of senior officials Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro to Damascus (even the US-Syria track will not be simple, not least given the Hariri tribunal as Jay Solomon points out but Syrian cooperation is important for American efforts in the region and there is always the Libya compromise precedent).
Two camps seem to be emerging. One is spoiling for a public spat between the new Israeli government and the Obama administration. The other is urging the Obama administration to act early and decisively to deliver a new land-for-peace deal and equilibrium in the Israeli-Arab arena that will be essential for broader regional stability. The former might tickle some people’s fancy but it’s the latter that is needed.
— Daniel Levy


20 comments on “Guest Post by Daniel Levy: No Sphinx, but a Peace Challenge from Damascus

  1. DonS says:

    Carroll’s right; call Congress and be blunt: Israel’s interests are not those of the U.S. and, equally, vice versa.
    via think Progress, the NYT revelation about NSA seeking to spy on Congress:
    “The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said.”
    How much do we bet that this is tied up with Israeli-related interests?
    Obama is by nature low keyed and, I would say intellectually arrogant enough not to take a position unless he is seriously pushed. He’s already demonstrated his sympathies for Israel, no surprise there. If there is any hope of peeling him away, i.e., change his mind, it will have to be coupled by some strong pushes to overcome the lobby, and the usual strong Israeli bias just about everywhere in the Administration.


  2. Mr.Murder says:

    Forgive me for arriving late, Moustapha is overqualified for the post he assumes as diplomat.
    He always finds ways of connecting to issues in terms that mean something to both sides of a particular argument.
    It is wonderful to read of his other accomplishments at having been so well versed in communication and technology.
    He is a Profile in Courage for this new century.
    There was a time when ideological foes battled with rhetoric and prose to capture the hearts and minds of people on either side of a divide which cleft Europe physically and spiritually. The clouds from this time cast shadows over the world’s expanse of development in the Cold War.
    The new challenge exists and for the most part both sides agree on many values in the market. Those values need to merge to greater extent so additional value exchange can occur across the span of difference. We’ll be more alike and greater friends for it in the future.
    Syria’s location and background could find it poised to accelerate change for all its neighbors as it takes bold new steps forward. The man Steve highlights in this story is poised to be a dynamic part of that effort.
    He is right about developing talks.
    It is what it is. Let’s talk peace anyways.


  3. pseudonymous in nc says:

    Ambassador Moustapha presumably understands realpolitik,
    given that he’s a representative of the Syrian government. Fair
    play to him: as Daniel Levy notes, he spent much of his public
    diplomacy during the past eight years as a whipping boy on
    I think the gambit he laid out to Zakaria has a degree of self-
    reflexiveness, in the sense that there’s the potential for a fairly
    blunt laying out of starting positions. Lieberman is comfortable
    with land-swaps, albeit ones on a vaguely Indo-Pak basis that
    give up the troublesome Arab bits of Israel in exchange for
    settler-occupied territory outside the green line. (It’s not just
    that his Russian support base doesn’t give a shit about the US; it
    doesn’t give much of a shit about old-school Zionism either, and
    the demographic and generational burying of Ben Gurion’s
    legacy changes the facts on the ground.)
    We’re frankly in a position where there’s still limited sense of
    what Netanyahu’s coalition will solidify into, in terms of both
    domestic and foreign policy. But it’d be nice to be prepared for
    when that happens. The Syrians are certainly doint that.


  4. Carroll says:

    POA just enumerated for us why the Hillary crowd isn’t going to get a peace settlement…nothing has changed in our politican’s fidelity to Israel.
    I saw on the AIPAC site that John Kerry is to be the keynote speaker at AIPAC’s annual US Congress’s Pledge of Alleigence to Israel ..along with the usual suspects, Hoyer, et all.
    I will call Kerry’s office tomorrow..I was purusing the FAS arms sales data base and see that Israel is now number 4 in world arms sales and exports…supplying 10% of all the world’s arms sales…4.2 billion a year in arms sales. I wonder if Kerry can explain why Israel claims it needs 3 billion from us every year to buy weapons for their fight against Arab terriers when they sell 4 billion a year in arms, a billion more than they buy from the US, to other countries? You reckon Kerry can explain that con game? He use to be a DA didn’t he? He should be familiar with racketering, extortion, bribery and criminal enterprises.
    As for Levey’s article…he is dreaming…or pretending…still. He is desperate to avoid a clash between the US and Israel..for Israel’s sake. No one can delude themselves like an Israeli. For every Israeli government since it’s inception “talking” about peace has never been anything more than drawing the shower curtin while they chainsaw Palestine in the bathtub.
    A “public” spat,a loud, public, political and nasty spat is exactly what we need and what has to happen to give Obama the shove he needs to done what has to be done about Israel.
    Call Kerry. I called Hoyer’s office some time ago and read part of his AIPAC speech to his aide and asked him what Hoyer meant when he said freshmen congresspeople must “be taught” to be loyal to Israel. Then I called Waxman’s office and asked what he meant when he said, as quoted by W&M, that no one who was not sympathic to Israel to Israel would serve on his committes. Waxman’s aide got so tounge tied I though she was going to cry.
    Pick up the phone and give these lower than scum sob congressional traitors hell…or don’t bother whinning about it.


  5. DonS says:

    Levy, too optimistic by half. Though it tracks with Steve’s earlier thinking contrarian thoughts about an empowered Netanyahu being able to deliver where someone to the left is too busy posturing
    So all the verities have been stated and stated well, with the added kicker of Rahm and Schumer standing watch.
    It’s all so predictable and depressing. Does Israel want “peace” or only managed chaos while grabbing land? Seems clear if you look at actions.
    Are the Palestinians capable of presenting a credible negotiating front?
    Does Obama care enough that he is willing to expend the political capital, and turn the screws on the Israelis, mainly financial, if indeed the Israelis are even susceptible to pressure? It’s been so long since that approach has even been marginally tested, it may be the policy equivalent of a eunuch.


  6. Kathleen G says:

    Anonymous. if they play those x rated tapes between Rahm and Blago this summer maybe that will take Rahm out. I was in shock when Obama selected Rahm
    POA did Uzi really get his Visa. Boy they are really standing up to the lobby and protecting National Security
    DonBacon. was that amazing or what? folks should watch that for a pick me up. Did you see how many times that has been watched?


  7. Don Bacon says:

    from Counterpunch:
    At a symposium on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council just days before Obama took office, Ali Abunimah, a sharp Palestinian-American commentator who runs the website, declared frankly that Washington exists in a bubble of ignorance and denial. While the rest of the world, particularly at the level of civil society, is talking about war crimes tribunals for Israeli leaders and about sanctions against Israel, Abunimah observed, Washington and those world leaders beholden to it are trying to move ahead as if nothing had changed. “We have to expect,” he said, “that the official apparatus of the peace-process industry — the Hillary Clintons, the Quartets, the Tony Blairs, the Javier Solanas, the Ban Ki-Moons, the whole panoply of official and semi-official Washington think tanks — will carry on with business as usual, trying to make believe that, through their ministrations, a Palestinian state will come into being.” But in the real world, this state won’t happen, he said, and the time has come to speak frankly about what is going on.


  8. Don Bacon says:

    Damn, Kathleen G, that teared me up. Stop it!


  9. Kathleen G says:

    Zakaria’s interview with Moustapha was insightful.
    Moustapha “America has vindicated herself after eight terrible years of the Bush administration”
    Moustapha Peace and security when “human dignity is restored to the Palestinian nation”


  10. TonyForesta says:

    There is no end to this horrorshow. No solutions are posssible. We are witness to the unholy convergence and choatic fusion of religious extremism, extreme nationalism, extremist ideologies, policies, and politics bruted by supremists exploiting extremism combined with tyrannical nationalism, and fascist political, cultural, and hydro claims and rights. Neither party will ever agree to any Jeruselem solution. Water rights are also sticky issues that prevent any agreement hope for compromise.
    There is no peace on earth, or goodwill toward men on this mad and violent earth. All we can hope for, is intelligent management of the certain crisis, – and that our side is hypersuperior, – Amen.


  11. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Uzi Arad gets his visa, Freeman gets castrated, the settlement expansion continues, Israel fries Palestinians in white phosphorous, Tristan Anderson takes a round to the head from an Israeli jackboot, and all without a peep from Obama.
    And now Obama is the White Night riding to the rescue of a two state solution, a President that Israel can’t say “no” to?
    Ask the dead crew members of the Liberty how much Israel cares about America, Americans, and what we do or do not want. Tristan Anderson might have a thing or two to say about it as well, that is, if he wasn’t missing his frontal lobe.
    The few billion these Congress jackasses just voted into the Israeli coffers, right on schedule, should dispel such fantasies. And if the doesn’t do it, the huge shipment of American munitions and arms, (including white phosphorous), that Israel just recived should inject a clue into anyone stupid enough to think Obama is changing the dynamic here.
    Levy, you’re losin’ it. Not only will Israel say no to Obama, they will undoubtedly tell him to go fuck himself if he dares rock the boat.


  12. Dan Kervick says:

    Hmmm … interest piqued anonymous. Topic of the meeting in bounds?


  13. anonymous says:

    Btw, I had my first meeting with Rahm last week, and I must say, he is a a caricature of himself.
    I strongly support his boss and the administration, but I find it impossible to believe that Rahm won’t soon be done in by the enemies he creates every day.
    I’ll say this again, I went to that meeting a lifelong democrat and a strong supporter of the White House and Rahm found a way to offend and insult me. I was utterly shocked and unprepared to respond. The insane thing is that it was completely unnecessary.
    The funny thing is, he talks about another political run after his WHCoS stint. He better not ask me for money!


  14. JamesL says:

    PS: You don’t get to walk in the Mid East.


  15. JamesL says:

    Dan: I agree totally with this fragment: “Israelis who don’t give a shit about the US”. I couldn’t have said it better, but it’s not just a Russian contingent. It appears, by their actions, to be all of them.
    Couple other things RE Dan’s comment: Any pursuit of victory over peace, absent the acceptance of the possibility of defeat, is delusional. Lets talk honestly about the defeat of Israel for a while, because the subject of Israeli victory gets all the press.
    I suggest two incentives for Israel. 1) The US will only cut off half of the 3+ billion (or is it 5 or 6?) bucks we give you instead of all of it. 2)The best incentive there is, is peace. If you don’t think peace is an incentive, you are delusional.
    That’s two delusionals to no hits. Full count.


  16. arthurdecco says:

    “Perhaps even subconsciously, Syria seems to be sending the message – you want to make peace, deal with the bad guys…” posted by Daniel Levy
    I would have been satisfied had you stopped there…but you went on to add your own interpretation of his words and intentions with the following:
    “…whichever side they are on (and that might as much be a self-reflective comment as it is a critique of Israel’s new leadership).”
    Mr. Levy, I would have rather had Imad Moustapha’s own clarification of his comments featured in your op-ed than your patent flights of fancy. Did you ask Ambassador Moustapha to expand on his statement before you manufactured your own interpretation of it?
    Besides, anyone who can describe Livni and her war criminal co-respondents as “center-left” while maintaining a straight face is either hopelessly uninformed or dishonest. Center-left politicians don’t engage in war against defenseless civilians using internationally banned weapons as an election campaign pick-me-up. Only boorish, fascist militarists intent on capturing the votes of racists are capable of such atrocities. And I can’t seem to remember ever being made aware that there was even such a thing as a boorish, fascist, militarist, race-baiting “center-left” politician. It’s certain Livni isn’t remotely center, let alone left-leaning, judging by the company she keeps and the opinions she freely disseminates knowing full well people like you, Mr. Levy, deliberately suppress her views.
    In Jewish-controlled political Israel, what passes for “center-left” seems to fall somewhere between “war criminal” and “racist” with almost all of the rest of the Jewish/Zionist political spectrum moving even more toward the “racist, repressive right” than those you absurdly describe as “center-left”, Mr. Levy.
    Finally: “Rather than expend political capital on an argument with Netanyahu over the words “two states” or over a settlement developments in far flung corners of the West Bank, the Obama capital would be better invested in driving home a plan for peace.” Daniel Levy
    Explain to me how there can be a “plan for peace” without first halting and then reversing the quasi-legal theft of Palestinian land for Jews to squat on, all paid for by Americans – even if they’re only in those “far-flung corners of the West Bank”. (& just to keep things in perspective we should acknowledge that the entire West Bank is hardly the size of a mid-level American city – certainly not enough area to think of it as having “far-flung corners”.)
    And “two states” is a dead-in-the-water, unless Israel is prepared to forcefully and violently remove at least 500,000 of their most extreme Zionist immigrants from properties that rightfully and legally belong to peaceful and law-abiding Palestinians. (Is this where you claim that every one of the millions of hectares of land expropriated and/or stolen from Palestinians by the Israeli State Terror Machine to be turned over to racist, rapacious squatters and corrupt business cronies was owned by a “terrorist” who targeted Israeli Jews without rhyme or reason?)


  17. Kathleen G says:

    ot sorry worth watching
    David Corn to Gaffney “Frank we’re you against the Nuremberg Trials”
    You go David
    Matthews blew a fuse ya hoo ( so glad when matthews let’s us know when he is really pissed) Like when he brings up our service people. Go Matthews
    go to the Spaih clip
    Chris Matthews ” my view, well my view is o.k. let me tell you my view of this Frank buddy I’ll tell you my view of this. We crossed that line in that West Point speech by President Bush George W. Bush up there in 2002 when he said we are going to go into other countries and kick ass because they do not have democracies in those countries that’s when he said we’re going to go kill
    people internationally because we do not like their form of government that’s when we crossed the line Frank”


  18. Kathleen G says:

    ot but so worth it
    watch Frank Gaffney, David Corn, and Chris matthews go at it about Spain going after our criminals
    David Corn “Frank we’re you against the Nuremberg Trials”


  19. Don Bacon says:

    Obama’s chief problem is not Israel, it is people like Emanuel and Schumer. Also, remember that Obama has never been an idealogue, but rather a conciliator among opposing powers. He prides himself on it. And what powers do the Palestinians have?


  20. Dan Kervick says:

    I will ask the same question here that I asked over at TPM Cafe, where this post by Daniel Levy is cross-posted: What incentive does the Israeli government have to respond favorably to any land-for-peace deal put on the table by the Obama administration?
    Ambassador Moustapha says the US should play “a vigorous, creative role in brokering peace between Arabs and Israelis… Israel will be very careful not to say no to the American president.
    Daniel Levy says Obama should “act early and decisively to deliver a new land-for-peace deal and equilibrium in the Israeli-Arab arena that will be essential for broader regional stability.”
    And yet Levy wants us to imagine that the United States can get the Israelis to change their ways without threatening any negative consequences, and without even so much as a “spat”. I have trouble believing this, and Levy’s dwindling camp of well-meaning liberals don’t appear to speak for the increasingly right-wing, hardline country from which he hails.
    Avigdor Lieberman represents a rising class of Russian Israelis who don’t give a shit about the US. And Netanyahu’s party has a very clear platform which is directly opposed to US policy. As for Israel being careful not to say no to an American President, Ammbassador Moustapha should know that the way it usually works is that Americans tell Israel, “We want you to do X”. The Israelis spend a long time not doing X, and then Americans say something like, “Hmmm … We find your failure to do X very unhelpful,” or “Ok, we don’t want you to do X anymore; we want you to do Y.” But there is never any follow through with bared teeth. It doesn’t go beyond the furrowed brow stage.
    Israelis may want peace. But they want victory more than they want peace, and will defer peace until after they have achieved that victory. They have been engaged in a very long war with Palestinian Arabs for control of territory. This is a war Israel has been winning, slowly, for a long time. Why would they want to stop before they have finished winning?
    In order for Israelis to change this long-term approach, they must be given some sort of incentive. Unless Obama manages, in some way, to send a credible message that unless Israel does change its course, there will actually be some sort of penalty to pay or sanction to face, then I don’t see how the two-state solution goes anywhere, Syrian track or no Syrian track.
    Levy thinks Barack Obama can “deliver” a Peace deal and an “equilibrium” to the Arab-Israeli arena. He seems to imagine Obama as some sort of Olympian god who can drop a pain-free peace bomb on Israel and fix everything by magic soul power.


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