A Way Out of the Israeli-Syrian Impasse
The intensified violence between the Irani-backed Party of God (Hizbullah) and Israeli forces in southern Lebanon presents both Israel and Syria with two perspectives: a taste of the horror that will rain on the region should the peace process collapse, and a test for the political will necessary to take the final plunge into a peace agreement.
Israel and Syria have come a long way towards reconciling many of their difference since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. Both sides understand the principal requirement for a peace agreement: full withdrawal for full peace. The fact that the new negotiating teams were upgraded to the highest level sent a clear signal of their intentions to finalize an accord. Why then the deadlock? Simply put, the problem is a matter of principle — tactical/political in nature, rather than substantive. Syria wants Israel to agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan back to the 4 June 1967 lines before discussing normalization and security issues, while Israel wants to discuss security arrangements and other elements of peace first. It is important to note that the resumption of the negotiations last December was made possible only if each side held onto their understanding of where the talks left off before being suspended in March 1996. Syrian officials insisted that Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres agreed to a full withdrawal and wanted to reestablish that principle with Barak immediately upon the resumption of the negotiations. Israel, however, wanted to link the extent of withdrawal to what Syria is offering in return. Hence the current impasse.
Since the negotiations were suspended in early January, Barak has had time to gauge public sentiment and to prepare his coalition partner to face the inevitable. Barak knows that total withdrawal from the Golan is the price Israel must pay for peace. Assad's formula of "full withdrawal for full peace" made clear the Syrian position but left deliberately vague the depth of peace. Barak must now reverse the formula and offer "full Peace for full withdrawal." Israeli and Syrian delegations would be able to resume talks on the basis of the same formula, only with a different emphasis. For Israel, "full peace" will be presented as a cardinal demand, just as the Syrians all along presented "full withdrawal" as a key requirement from which they would not deviate. Once such a formula is placed on the negotiating table, what constitutes full peace from the Israeli perspective and full withdrawal from the Syrian point of view — whether to the international borders of 1923 or the 4 June 1967 lines, or somewhere in between, can be negotiated in separate committees. Issues related to final borders, sensitive security arrangements, speed of normalization and phased withdrawal can then be discussed in their proper context. When President Anwer Al-Sadat traveled to Jerusalem in 1977, he made Egypt's requirements for peace abundantly clear. There was absolutely no commitment on Israel's part to accept his conditions. Nevertheless, Sadat made the peace overture knowing both his position, and more importantly, what constituted the bottom line to make peace.
Assad knows that Barak cannot offer full withdrawal unless he can deliver full peace with security to his people, and Barak knows that Assad will not offer anything resembling peace unless he recovers the entire Golan. This is not a revelation for either; it is simply a new recognition of each other's bottom line and the fact that time is running out. The violence in southern Lebanon gave both leaders a pause and a moment of reckoning. For this reason, it appears that Barak and Assad have made the resumption of talks a top priority. Barak's point man for back channel contact with Syria, Israel's Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, held secret talks with a Syrian official and received assurances of Assad's desire to resume negotiations. And a flurry of diplomatic activities encouraged by both sides fosters an atmosphere of imminent new talks. Jordan's King Abdullah, who was instrumental in getting the last rounds of talks underway, is back in action predicting rapid progress. The United States, which has been intensely engaged in bilateral discussions with Israel and Syria about its role and support, is continuing its long distance mediating efforts, determined not to miss the last possible opportunity before President Clinton leaves office. The British, the French, the Russians and even the Japanese have gotten into the act by offering help and assistance to break the impasse.
A more compelling view of the importance of an Israeli-Syrian agreement comes from their respective publics. A Gallup poll, commissioned by the independent Israeli newspaper Maarive, indicated that most Israelis (67 percent) support going ahead with Syrian peace efforts even though three Israeli soldiers were just killed in southern Lebanon. And in Syria, people in the streets speak openly and with enthusiasm about the prospect of peace. This time, they say, we know that peace is coming. President Assad is preparing his people. In the past, banners in Syrian cities and towns merely proclaimed, "The Golan belongs to us." Now they read, "We fought with dignity and honor, we negotiate with dignity and honor, and we make peace with dignity and honor."
Unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, as promised by Barak, will not end the attacks over the Israeli border (which can be readily arranged without direct link to Damascus) unless this is part of an overall agreement with Syria over the Golan. Lebanon will be the battle ground and will be reduced to rubble as a result of massive Israeli retaliations. And Israel, still, will not know peace.
Barak and Assad must now muster the political will and accept each other's bottom line. They will find their respective publics cheering their courage for taking the plunge into peace and withstanding the test of time with dignity.