At present, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is finalising proposals for what the US President has called the “deal of the century” for peace in Palestine. But while Trump has touted the deal as a game-changer that will be embraced by Palestinians and Israelis, excerpts of the proposals that were leaked have been widely criticised by Palestinian politicians.
In the context of a region where deal making of any kind is notoriously difficult, Russia has struck an agreement with Israel that can be objectively called “the deal of the century” because of its radical departure from decades of historical precedent. The deal which has been widely known for some time but which has now been explicitly articulated by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu who is currently in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, has been described by Netanyahu himself in the following way:
“We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights. I have set a clear policy that we do not intervene and we have not intervened. This has not changed. What has troubled us is ISIS and Hezbollah and this has not changed. The heart of the matter is preserving our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us. Second, the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory”. (bold lettering added for emphasis)
The subtext is that Russia has told Tel Aviv that its forces in Syria will help to facilitate the Iranian and Hezbollah withdrawal that Russian officials have also stated is their goal, albeit for very different reasons than those voiced by Israeli and American officials.
The reason this can be described as the deal of the century is because never before in history has Israel acknowledged the de-facto legitimacy of an Arab leader who does not recognise and likely never will recognise Israel. While Israel is well aware of the tendencies and policies of all the Arab leaders whose nations Tel Aviv’s forces have frequently attacked and occupied over the decades, the only Arab heads of state and government Israel acknowledges are the ones that overtly recognise Israel (President of Egypt, King of Jordan) or those who de-facto recognise Israel (King of Saudi Arabia, leaders of the UAE, ostensibly the Emir of Qatar and others in the Gulf Cooperation Council).
But as the most staunchly Arab Nationalist/Anti-Zionist President of any Arab state, Bashar al-Assad like his father before him has long been a figure of hatred for Israel even dating back to the time in the early 2000s when the Syrian President and his wife Asma were attending elegant dinners with former US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Queen Elizabeth II of England.
Now though, because Benjamin Netanyahu has come to both trust and now rely on Russia because of Moscow’s policy of non-interference in military engagements between Israel and Syria’s other partners and also because Russia has expressed willingness to effectively act as a guarantor of an Iranian/Hezbollah pull-out should Damascus follow through with its part of the implied deal, the man who is arguably Israel’s most hawkish leader ever has done something that none of his more “centrist” predecessors have ever done. Netanyahu has acknowledged the right of an Arab Nationalist President to govern his country in peace even though the Arab Nationalist in question has no intention of dropping his support for Palestine. Furthermore, Netanyahu has not even dared to ask President Al-Assad to do so via a Russian intermediary – thus compounding the historic nature of the agreement.
In other words, in exchange for Syria telling some of its partners to withdraw, almost certainly in a heroic fashion, Israel is demanding not only a return to the pre-2011 status quo but is offering much more. As Israel had never hesitated to attack Syria even before 2011, with the most infamous such attack taking place in 2007, Russia’s deal of the century as articulated by Israel’s leader appears to imply that even a 2007 style ‘hit and run’ attack is now off the table so long as Iranian and Hezbollah forces withdraw from Syrian territory. Thus, one could describe the deal as one where Israel is making a more generous offer to a Syria that has been weakened after seven years of devastating war, a more contextually generous offer than any which was forthcoming when Syria was in a much stronger position in the region prior to 2011.
While it is true that according to the international law which Russia continues to respect, Iran and Hezbollah have an absolute right to remain in Syria so long as the Syrian government allows this – it is also true that the brute aggression of countries like the United States who continues to occupy an even larger part of Syria than that which Israel has occupied since 1967, is not going to end even if one personally sends the leadership in Washington and Tel Aviv a polite letter explaining the relevant portions of international law which they are disobeying. Therefore, for all practical purposes, one’s realistic response to such difficult situations ought to be equally informed by historic precedent and realities on the ground as by the international law that simply cannot be realistically enforced against powerful nations with nuclear weapons.
Because of this, one cannot lose sight of the unique qualities of Russia’s ‘deal of the century’ with Israel. This is especially the case when considering that for the last several years, Israel has been indiscriminately bombing Syria in the hopes of not only destroying Iranian assets but of weakening the Syrian government. Furthermore, the fact that Israel is now openly throwing down the gauntlet in stating what it will take for Tel Aviv to de-facto recognise the legitimacy of the Ba’athist government of Bashar Al-Assad, it follows that the Israeli leader is also speaking for the United States as it has never been the case where Israel has more positive views of an Arab Nationalist leader than the United States. In actual fact, the US has historically had less negative views (though still far from positive) on Arab Nationalist leaders than those in Tel Aviv.
Now, owing entirely to Russia’s intense diplomatic efforts, Israel’s leader is willing to let President Assad remain in power so long as Iran and its Lebanese allies vacate and so long as Syria retains its post-1974 policy of tacitly acknowledging the 1967 purple line as frozen in stone in spite of long-term aspirations to liberate the occupied territories of the Golan Heights.
The word compromise necessarily implies that all sides will have to concede some of their penultimate goals in order to achieve a partial win-win reality which in this case revolves around peace and non-intervention. Russia’s deal of the century with Israel is by no means perfect as no such deals ever are, but it is nevertheless a history making endeavour that a proud Arab Nationalist state like Syria ought to recognise in spite of its partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran.