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Israel/Syria: Talks May Start Soon But Last Long

  • Charles Recknagel

Israel and Syria have sent their strongest signals to date that both are ready to revive long-stalled peace negotiations, raising hopes that a breakthrough could be imminent. But despite mounting optimism, creating a peace between the two countries remains one of the Middle East's toughest political and military challenges. As our correspondent reports, even if peace talks resume, their pace is likely to be slow and tortured, no matter how much the principal players want to make progress.

Prague, 21 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Both Israel and Syria appear to be preparing the ground for resuming peace talks, which broke down acrimoniously in 1996. At the same time, U.S. President Bill Clinton has sought to encourage such a resumption by urging Syrian President Hafez Assad to be a peacemaker and saying Washington is ready to seek more normal ties with Damascus, which the U.S. currently considers a sponsor of terrorism.

Danny Yatom is a close advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Yatom signaled Israel's readiness yesterday by saying his government hopes the two states will soon find common ground for resuming direct negotiations. He spoke as Barak wrapped up a U.S. visit during which the new Israeli leader set himself a 15-month time-frame for action on a broader Middle East peace process.

As Israel committed itself to a fast peace pace, Arab-Israeli legislator Talab el-Sana said yesterday that the Syrian government had met recently with Palestinian militant groups based in Damascus and ordered them to end their decades-long struggle with the Jewish state. Both Israel and the United States -- which consider the groups terrorists -- immediately said that if the report is true, it would help clear the way toward improving relations with both of them.

But despite the flurry of signals that there soon could be a resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks, analysts say that carrying the talks forward will present both Israel and Syria with daunting challenges that will assure slow progress.

David Nissman is a Middle East expert with RFE/RL's Communications Division. He says that making peace is complicated by the fact that the centerpiece of the conflict -- the Golan Heights -- is of key importance to both sides, both for its military significance and as a regional watershed.

"The pace of talks will be glacial. There are a lot of issues on which compromise will be very difficult by either side. The person who sits on the Golan Heights has control over the area with just medium-range artillery. And water for years has been considered to be a more valuable commodity than oil as far as the long-term is concerned."

Syria and Israel have held sporadic peace talks since 1991. But the negotiations broke off in early 1996 without making progress on Syria's demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Damascus ended the talks in Washington, D.C., after accusing Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, of reneging on what it said were earlier Israeli promises to exchange territory for peace guarantees.

But in the three years since peace talks broke off, pressure has mounted both on Syria and Israel to make a new effort to come to some sort of peace deal.

Nissman says that Assad -- who is 69 and suffered a heart attack in 1983 -- is increasingly feeling the pressure of time to resolve the Syrian-Israeli conflict before he passes power on to his likely successor, his largely untested son Bashar.

"One factor which has been alluded to is Assad is in not very good health. I think he would like to leave a legacy. His regaining of Golan, if he actually regains it, would be a major coup for him. It would enhance his prestige. The other problem is he has no real successor. A resolution of this issue -- the whole issue with Israel, the Palestinians and the occupied territories -- it would give Syria a greater feeling of security if these issues could be resolved before the end of his term."

At the same time, Syria is also under pressure from its ailing economy and the inability of its long-term ally, Moscow, to provide it with adequate financial help. Nissman says that Syria sees the only solution to its economic problems in foreign investment, which Moscow cannot supply.

"With the removal of the support for terrorists, he opens up his country for much more international investment, which is financially lucrative. Obviously, Russia would be unable to supply this, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has not been as staunch an ally as perhaps Syria could have hoped. I mean, it had no money."

Israel, for its part, is under mounting pressure to come to terms with Syria because it is trapped in a war of attrition in south Lebanon, where Damascus is the undisputed power broker. Each year, the Israeli army suffers dozens of casualties defending its self-declared security zone in south Lebanon against attacks by Lebanese and Palestinian militants, including the powerful and effective Shiite Hezbollah.

Public opinion in Israel is increasingly demanding that the army be withdrawn from south Lebanon, and Barak came to power partly on promises to do so.

Barak has broken with the previous Israeli government's position of trying to negotiate a separate peace in south Lebanon only with Beirut, an effort consistently rejected by both the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Barak has shown instead that he is ready to go through Damascus by pledging to withdraw Israeli soldiers from the security zone within a year if Syria agrees to prevent armed attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon.

Barak is also under considerable international pressure to pick up the pace of both the Israeli-Arab and the Israeli-Palestinian peace processes in order to end Israel's isolation on the world scene under the government of Netanyahu, whose opposition to territorial concessions largely put the Mideast peace process on hold.

But analysts say that both Syria's and Israel's increased interest in returning to the peace table in no way means either side has given up its intention to be a very tough bargainer.

Barak has yet to speak concretely about how much of the Golan Heights he is ready to return to Syria, other than to say he is ready to seek a compromise. He has also promised that before any peace deal with Syria, he would conduct a popular referendum. Recent opinion polls have shown that the majority of Israelis are against a handover of all the Golan Heights. The highlands are a highly emotional issue in Israel because they are now home to some 17,000 settlers.

Meanwhile, Assad has yet to speak publicly about what he is willing to bring to the table, or if he is willing to come at all. That leaves any real sense of how quickly peace talks can begin and where they might lead now dependent on Syria's next move.