The announcement of peace negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem must be viewed against the backdrop of Syria's relations with Iran.
Was the announcement coordinated with Tehran? Did it have Iran's blessing? Or should it be seen as an opening move by Damascus to weaken Iran's grip on Syria?
Israelis naturally view Iran's danger to us principally through its efforts to become nuclear, and this is, of course, the prime existential danger facing us. Yet even without the bomb, Iran has become our most dangerous enemy.
Its strategy has been to close us in, with pro-Iranian Syria and Hezbollah in the north and pro-Iranian Hamas in the south. Hezbollah has today 30,000 to 40,000 rockets and missiles in its possession; Syria has thousands of missiles that can reach any part of Israel. Wars of the Yom Kippur genre are a thing of the past. We won't be seeing hundreds of tanks clashing in fierce combat on the Golan Heights. We could, however, if the Iranians were to translate their threats "to wipe Israel off the face of the map" into deeds, witness the unleashing of these missiles against our civilian population in a future war at Iran's bidding.
Farfetched? Possibly. Israel, of course, has its own capabilities that should not be underestimated.
From a purely military and security point of view, the northern front — Syria and Lebanon — is far more dangerous than anything we face against the Palestinians, Hamas and Gaza included. From that perspective the need to seek an accommodation with Syria and to weaken Iran's grip on our northern borders is more urgent than our talks with the Palestinians, although the one need not be at the expense of the other.
The Syrians have, unsurprisingly, already announced that their alliance with Iran will not be a subject for negotiation. Indeed, they could hardly have stated otherwise. Yet it should be obvious that Tehran is far from pleased with the latest developments, and views with alarm a possible accord between its ally Syria and Israel.
The Syrians dearly want the United States to become actively involved in the negotiations. They want to end their isolation — both in the West and in the Arab world — and believe that negotiations with Israel will help them achieve that aim.
Syria would like to see American dollars — lots and lots of them — replace the moneys they are receiving from Iran. They have taken note of the Egyptian precedent — the American billions that poured into Cairo after the peace accord between Egypt and Israel. They know that to achieve these aims there is a price, above all the ending of their marriage of convenience with the fundamentalists of Iran.
There is no great love in Damascus for their fundamentalist allies in Hezbollah and Iran. Syria would much rather be embraced by Saudi Arabia and the West — provided there are no strings attached — than by Tehran. Moreover, together with Iranian money comes missionary zeal; reports speak of new mosques — Shi'ite mosques — springing up in various parts of the country, especially in central Syria and the north.
Will Hezbollah try to scuttle negotiations by starting a new war, with the active help of Iran? That danger exists, and must not be taken lightly. Flushed with victory over its pro-Western rivals in Beirut, the powerful Shi'ite militia may be prone to do so, especially if it's encouraged to take action by Iranian ayatollahs.
The negotiations will not be a quick affair. The complications will come with the details: Can Israelis continue to live on the Golan under Syrian sovereignty? Can the Golan be leased to Israel under nominal Syrian sovereignty? What timetable will be accepted for the takeover? How will demilitarization work? Will there be continued use of the lookout post on Mount Hermon? Free access to the Golan for Israelis? How will the continued flow of water to the Sea of Galilee be guaranteed?
The agreements on these and many other issues will affect the Israeli public's degree of support for the final draft of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord — if we ever get to that stage.
David Kimche is a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry.