Images of Reconciliation
Acting Prime Minister Peres was correct when he said Labor would be making a grave mistake in stalling peace talks with Syria while campaigning in the elections. Syria's Foreign Minister Shara responded in kind, stating that "Syria is ready for the achievement of a breakthrough in the negotiations."
The tragic death of prime minister Rabin has created a new psychological atmosphere more conducive to reaching an agreement both in Israel and Syria.
On the one hand, Rabin's departure has engendered a new uncertainty, demonstrating some of the dangerous schisms within Israeli society as well as heightening anxieties about the prospects for peace both in Jerusalem and Damascus. On the other hand, the evil that struck Rabin down has galvanized Israel's silent majority and brought it to the fore.
A recent Yediot Aharonot opinion poll showed a sharp swing – 54 per cent – toward Labor in support of the policy of exchanging territory for peace, with 23 percent against. Some 74 percent of those polled said the government should proceed with the implementation of Oslo 2.
The question now is how Israel and Syria can translate the new political environment into a breakthrough in the peace talks. Diplomats on both sides warn that if no agreement is achieved in a few months and the Likud wins the elections, there will be little or no hope of an accord with Syria, with all the grave consequences that failure implies.
Peres is perceived as soft on matters of national security, and there is lingering concern about his presumed overzealousness to achieve peace at any price. He could trigger a backlash if he moved too quickly toward an agreement with Syria without first obtaining some dramatic conciliatory gesture from Assad.
The peace talks need a human dimension. To that end, Assad should meet publicly with Peres. Peres has publicly acknowledged Syrian sovereignty over the Golan. He could reiterate that once Assad signals his readiness to meet.
If nothing else were accomplished, the images generated by such an encounter, under the banner of "full withdrawal for full peace," would surely have an important psychological impact on the multitude of Israelis and Syrians. With good will, such a historic event would develop a momentum of its own.
A summit would create a new dynamic, bypassing difficult procedural issues and allowing focus on substantive ones. It could cut through the thicket of security issues, setting the stage for an agreement.
Israel's demand for early warning stations, which is at the center of the deadlock, and other security issues could be viewed in a different light against the background of an Assad-Peres meeting. Five decades of mutual fear and distrust cannot be wiped out in one day, but a Peres-Assad meeting could create critically important images of reconciliation.
The political climate in Syria is riper for peace today than four years ago. As long as Assad states his position in advance of a meeting with Peres (following the example of Egypt's President Sadat), he stands to lose nothing. On the contrary, he could eliminate much of the remaining psychological barrier preventing the majority of Israelis from supporting full withdrawal.
Finally, an equitable agreement ensuring Israel's security would help Peres's prospects in the next elections – and that would serve Syria's interest, insuring continuity and full implementation of the peace agreement.
Assad ought to remember that amid all the misgivings surrounding Oslo I, the picture that left an indelible mark and swayed the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians was the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the front lawn of the White House.
Peres has little choice but to listen to the public pulse and, like his predecessor, avoid any move the majority of the public clearly still fears. An Assad-Peres public meeting could make the difference.