Opinion: For Israel and Syria, peace is within reach

NEW YORK — To walk through the Syrian city of Quneitra is like visiting the scene of a cataclysmic earthquake. Everywhere, there are mountains of rubble, great mounds of cement blocks, twisted sheets of corrugated metal and spaghettis of iron bars. The flattened carcasses of dozens of homes, shops and schools are lodged into the grassy plain in what once was a town of 20,000 people on Syria's frontier with Israel. The few buildings still standing are disemboweled, their walls punched through by rockets and scarred by bullets.

Quneitra has looked this way for more than three decades, since Israeli forces withdrew from the town a year after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Syrians insist that the Israelis bulldozed or dynamited nearly every building in Quneitra before leaving; Israel claims the town was destroyed during fighting over the Golan Heights.

On orders of the late President Hafez Assad, the Syrian government kept Quneitra a demolished ghost town — an eerie war memorial to its struggle with Israel. On Fridays, Syrian families have picnics in front of the rubble. Municipal officials lead foreign visitors and journalists on choreographed tours. They hand out a hardcover book of photographs titled, "Quneitra: Martyred City."

Syrian officials have a well-rehearsed script, which I heard when I visited Quneitra in 2003. "Every Syrian knows about the Israeli crimes committed in Quneitra," said Mohammed Ali, a government official who organizes the tours. "We're going to keep it this way until all of our territory is liberated."

Quneitra is a symbol of Syria's fixation on regaining every inch of the Golan Heights, a strategic terrain that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. With such a bloody history, is peace possible between Syria and Israel?

The Obama administration has an opportunity to break the current logjam in the Middle East by focusing away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and pushing for renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrian-Israeli track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where the two sides are still far apart on the central issues: Israeli settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem. By contrast, the Syrians and Israelis mainly need to negotiate over the return of the Golan Heights, and related security guarantees and water access issues.

Unlike the weak Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian President Bashar Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal. Such an agreement is possible during Obama's presidency, but it will not happen without the deep involvement of his administration. The United States has much to gain strategically from renewed Syrian-Israeli dialogue: Damascus could be pressed to play a more constructive role in the region, instead of being a spoiler. If there are serious negotiations, the United States can demand that Assad's regime stop interfering in Iraq, carry out domestic reforms, respect human rights and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel. To achieve peace, the United States must strongly push Israel back to negotiations and be willing to dispatch U.S. personnel as monitors of any final agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently offered to negotiate with Assad "anytime, anywhere," but starting from scratch — and Assad rebuffed the idea. Assad is correct in assuming that a meeting with Netanyahu would be a mere photo-op. Instead, Assad suggested that the two sides continue indirect negotiations through Turkey. (Israeli and Syrian officials held a series of meetings last year through Turkish intermediaries, but Assad broke off the talks after the Israeli attack on Gaza.)

There is a well-established framework for a Syrian-Israeli deal — and one of its architects is Frederic Hof, who currently serves as a top deputy to George Mitchell, the Obama administration's special envoy for Middle East peace. Over the past decade, Hof has proposed some of the most concrete ideas for solving this conflict, including a draft Syria-Israel peace treaty. Just before he joined the administration in March, Hof wrote a report for the U.S. Institute of Peace in which he laid out the idea of creating a nature preserve on the Golan Heights and parts of the Jordan River Valley that would be returned to Syria. The preserve, which would be administered by Syria, is based on existing parks and nature reserves created by Israel during its occupation. The area would be accessible to both Syrians and Israelis to encourage informal, people-to-people contacts that could solidify a peace agreement.

Syria has consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if the entire Golan Heights and small tracts in the Jordan River Valley are returned. In January 2000, then-President Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Hafez Assad — Bashar's father — and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land, about 500 yards wide, that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel.

In his report, Hof lays out in detail how these thorny disputes over access to water can be resolved. He writes that the plan "embodies a fundamental trade-off: Syria gets the land and regulated access to the water, and Israel gets the water and regulated access to the land."

Despite his rhetoric, the younger Assad has shown a willingness to negotiate and he revels in the idea of proving to the world that Syria holds the crucial cards to peace and stability in the Middle East.

When I visited Quneitra, the few residents who settled back in the area had vivid memories of the 1967 war, when they were driven out of their homes by the advancing Israeli forces. "We lost everything. We escaped with just the clothes on our backs," said Shehadeh Owayed, a cattle farmer who was 12 years old when the war broke out. "My family had 200 acres. We planted grapes, apples, lentils and many other things. Now, it’s all gone."

Owayed's family land is in a part of Quneitra that is still under Israeli control. When I met him, he lived with his wife and five children in a two-room concrete house on the town's outskirts. From his window, Owayed looked past the grassy hills and fields speckled with clumps of yellow and white spring flowers, toward the Israeli settlements that dot the Golan. The fertile land yields a bounty of fruit orchards and olive groves for the settlers. "This is Syrian land. There's no dispute about that," Owayed told me. "We're only asking for what is rightfully ours."

History weighs heavily on Quneitra, as it does in many parts of the Middle East. But that is no reason to assume that peace is out of reach.  

Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University. He was the Middle East bureau chief at Newsday (NY) from 2003 to 2007, where he was the lead writer on the Iraq war and its aftermath.