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Will a strike on Syria impact peace talks?

A strike on Syria is not at all certain to derail Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and may even give them a boost

With America on the verge of attacking Syria, one can’t help but wonder whether a strike would impact America’s ongoing efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The conventional response to this question is to predict that escalating violence of this sort would cause Israelis to draw inwards, making them less inclined to take risks for peace. This position was clearly articulated in yesterday’s New York Times, in which Jodi Rudoren quotes an Israeli sociologist, Eva Illouz, as saying that the chaos in Syria is “another nail in the coffin in the vision of the left.” “They’re going to comfort that Netanyahu narrative of ‘They all want us out, and we need to be very strong,’” Illouz said.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it overlooks the fact that the Israeli public is not expected to play a decisive role in the peace process in the near-future. According to the State Department’s timeline, negotiations should continue for another six months or so – an eternity in the world of Mideast affairs – before a deal would ever be presented to the Israeli public. And among Israel’s political echelon, things could play out quite differently than among the public. In fact, it is even conceivable that an American strike on Syria would make Israeli politicians more committed to the peace process.

To see how this could play out, it’s worth first noting that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is likely to try to use a potential U.S. strike as an excuse to disrupt talks.

On the Palestinian side, despite the fact that Fatah has formally denounced the putative strike using typically inflammatory bravado, analysts seem doubtful that going through with it would cause a serious backlash. “Thirty-one Palestinian relatives of families from Jenin and Nazareth were among those gassed to death near Damascus so there is little sympathy for the Assad regime,” said Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab in a recent call. Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, echoed Kuttab’s sentiments: “Neither the PLO officials who govern the West Bank, nor the Palestinian street, are inclined to seriously object to any military action against Syria,” Ibish said. “Ever since the events at Tahir Square, the sectarian divisions across the Middle East have become increasingly clear and it’s extremely difficult for any Sunni to side with an Alawite regime that’s waging wars against Sunni groups.”

On the Israeli side, which has all but directly called for a military intervention in Syria, there’s even less reason to believe a U.S. strike in and of itself would disrupt talks. In the words of Dan Scheuftan, Director of the National Security Center at the University of Haifa, “Netanyahu is not looking for any excuses to walk away and be blamed for the talks’ failure.”

In fact, a strike could actually make Netanyahu more inclined to keep talks going. Here’s why:

Netanyahu has publicly explained that he sees the peace process as part of a larger strategy to combat Iran — “[the peace process] is important in light of the challenges we face, especially from Iran and Syria,” he wrote in late July. There are many possible ways that Netanyahu may see the peace process playing into the battle against Iran, but one popular theory, as explained by Michael Koplow of the Israel Institute, is that ‘”Israel hopes to convince the U.S. to provide military help against Iran in exchange for progress on the peace process.”

If this interpretation of Netanyahu’s motives is correct, then a strike against Syria could make peace talks more attractive; after months of questions about whether Obama is just full of “empty talk” on Syria, a military strike would prove that Obama is willing to use force when his red lines are crossed. As a result, his threats against Iran may take on more credibility. And the more Israel believes that the U.S. could be convinced to take military action against Iran, the more likely it is to try to curry favor with the Administration.

Of course, if the current prevailing assessment that an American strike won’t trigger a serious regional conflict is wrong, then all bets are off. In this scenario, Israel would have to focus more on its immediate surroundings and less on a longer-term regional strategy, of which the peace talks are part. There’s also the possibility that an American military campaign would fall short of Israeli officials’ expectations, leaving them disappointed, and potentially less trusting that the U.S. could be counted on to deal with Iran.

Only time will tell which of these different scenarios, if any, will come to pass. As always, there are myriad different variables floating in the air right now, and innumerable different ways in which all the pieces could fall. But what is clear is that the emerging conventional wisdom that the escalation in Syria will suck the air out of peace talks is not set in stone.

About the Author
Danielle Spiegel Feld is Associate Director of Research & Policy at the Israel Policy Forum. She holds a JD from New York University School of Law (2010) and was a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Law from 2010-2012.
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