Wilmington News Journal
September 12, 1999
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An Awful lot to do in year
September 12, 1999
by Ralph J. Begleiter

When Syria's foreign Minister, Farouk Shara, meets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on January 3 [next week/this week] along the Potomac River near the American Civil War battlegrounds of Gettysburg and Antietam, they won't sit down before a blank slate. A lot of the groundwork for their negotiations has already been laid. The path to a settlement is fairly clear. Many of the details have already been discussed between them.

The conflict between Syria and Israel should be one of the simplest in the Middle East to resolve. Unlike the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, which includes Gordian knots ranging from land ownership to refugees to religious, economic and political access issues, the Syrian-Israeli dispute revolves around a simple border dispute.

But just because the problem is simple, don't think the solution will be easy or quick. These two enemies (Syria and Israel remain, technically, at war; they never declared an end to the 1967 conflict in which Israel seized the Golan Heights) have established a reputation for hard bargaining and for turning their backs on one another even when agreements seemed at hand.

There are technicalities, of course, important ones. But essentially the dispute between Israel and Syria boils down to this: Syrian President Hafez Assad, who as a military general in 1967 contributed to Syria's loss of the Golan Heights, wants every inch of that territory returned to Syria. Nothing more. Nothing less. And Israel, which has taken advantage of possession of the Golan to establish it as both a security outpost and a political statement of Israel's power and permanency in the Middle East, wants to enlist politically powerful Syria in guaranteeing that permanency. Israel wants Syria to endorse Israel's existence, not grudgingly but enthusiastically.

The leaders of Israel and Syria have never met. Hafez Assad is continuing his record of refusing to face "the enemy" by sending his well-respected foreign minister to the talks with Israel's prime minister this month. But Assad has made it clear to the United States, which is brokering the talks, that Shara speaks for Syria's highest authority. If a deal is reached, Assad has assured the United States, Syria will abide by it. If he's physically capable of it, Assad can be expected to meet with Barak personally to shake hands on the agreement.

And if a deal is reached, Syria can be expected to stick to its commitments, precisely to the letter, nothing more, nothing less. (With all the violence in the Middle East since 1967, the disputed border between Israel and Syria has been the quietest. Assad has adhered scrupulously to a post-1967 cease fire and several other interim agreements reached with the United States acting on Israel's behalf.)

Even though the leaders haven't met, and even though Israel and Syria both attended peace talks in Madrid in 1991 reluctantly, they've conducted thorough and detailed negotiations since then. In a series of meetings in and around Washington, under the auspices of a dogged team of American mediators, Syrian and Israeli military and political officials together have already:

That does not mean the two sides have agreed on all this. In fact, Israel and Syria have carefully avoided signing any commitments, each arguing that until the whole deal is done, nothing's done. (Illustrating the skittishness of both sides, immediately following reports on these accomplishments in 1995, Syrian and Israeli media questioned whether so much had, in fact, been discussed. But in the years since then, both Israeli and Syrian government officials have confirmed the details. To avoid losing ground, Syria has gone so far as to insist this week's new round of talks pick up where the last ones left off.)

Most of that work was accomplished by mid-1995, in the most serious negotiations the two nations have had in thirty years. It was interrupted abruptly by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin late that year, and aborted by a spate of dramatic terrorist attacks inside Israel and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in 1996.

But people following the negotiations closely say even under Netanyahu, while Syria was insisting that nothing was being accomplished, back-channel talks continued through a private envoy sent by the Israeli leader.

There was a continuing incentive for Israel, even for Netanyahu, to want an agreement with Syria: Israelis are weary of suffering army casualties at the hands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives who oppose Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel has a couple of thousand soldiers there. But Syria has some 30-thousand troops in Lebanon, and the festering conflict across Israel's border with Lebanon is widely believed to be controllable by Syria's Assad.

Israelis and Americans believe if a Syrian-Israeli settlement were achieved, the Lebanon problem would likely evaporate. Barak could fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw Israel's troops from Lebanon by July.

Syria, too, has an incentive to settle with Israel. Assad is 69, and is believed to be ill, though he still challenges official visitors with his mental and physical stamina. Assad may want to clean up his Golan Heights legacy before turning power over to his son, Bashar, who, from available public signs appears to envision developing Syria's economic and business power &endash; more than its military &endash; in the Middle East. That could only be accomplished with the acquiescence (and probably even the help) of the United States and Europe. Since Syria is still officially listed by the United States as a state-sponsor of international terrorism, a settlement with Israel offers the prospect of lifting longstanding sanctions and enabling Bashar's future vision for Syria.

The United States, which shepherded the original face-to-face meetings between Syria and Israel at Madrid in 1991 and has nursed the talks along throughout the 1990's, would love to see that process come to fruition. Aside from President Clinton's obvious motive to oversee another Arab-Israeli deal on his watch (he has already concluded the Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation in 1993 and the Jordanian-Israeli treaty in 1995), the diplomats who have worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Clinton are eager to bring the peacemaking era in the Middle East to closure.

So, if there's so much going for this week's negotiations near Washington between Barak and Shara, what could possibly stand in the way of an agreement? Pride. And details. Syria and Israel will each have to swallow decades of defiant pride and shake hands on a specific agreed border. Syrians will have to accept Israel as a genuine partner in the Middle East. Israel will have to undo its annexation of the Golan and trust Syria to refrain from the kind of military confrontation which drove Israel to seize the Heights in 1967.

It can be done. The groundwork is laid. But it's not easy.

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