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Israel/Syria: Talks Challenge Both Sides

As Syria and Israel conduct peace talks near Washington, D.C., both sides face the problem of how to obtain an agreement that will be seen as a clear-cut victory at home. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the mood in Syria and Israel.

Prague, 5 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Syrian and Israeli negotiators have struck tough postures since going into their week of intensive talks near Washington, D.C.

So far, the meeting -- likely to be just one of many -- has been dominated by procedural disputes. The first days have bogged down reportedly amid such issues as whether the two sides will first discuss the timing of any Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights -- as Syria wants -- or first discuss security arrangements -- as Israel desires.

Analysts say the parties' tough opening gestures are aimed partly at each other and partly at their own publics. Both sides for quite different reasons need to reach an agreement that not only is acceptable to the other side but also is regarded domestically as a hard-won victory.

Syria, a one-man state run by President Hafez Assad, has the easier task at home. Assad knows any agreement his foreign minister, Farouk Shara, strikes will be approved by the People's Assembly and the ruling Baath party that Assad dominates.

But Assad still faces constraints. For decades he has repeatedly told Syrians he will settle for nothing but the full return of the Golan Heights, which he lost to Israel as defense minister in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. To come home with less risks appearing weak at a time when his own health -- and the question of who will succeed him -- are the biggest questions in Syrian politics.

Assad wants a peace accord that makes him appear strong as he picks Syria's next leader. He is reported to have encountered problems in Syria's elite with securing acceptance for his apparent chosen successor -- his son Bashar -- and the issue has yet to be resolved.

Talcott Seelye, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, says Assad also needs a full return of the Golan Heights to satisfy his own sense of destiny.

"Assad is the one who is front and center in wanting the entire Golan Heights back. He feels very vulnerable that he had a hand in losing it. That's one point. The second point is that it is a matter of Syrian national pride. I think the national pride is more in Assad's way of looking at things than with the Syrians, except for those who were displaced from the Golan and there are about 300,000 or 400,000 ex-inhabitants of the Golan waiting to get back and they, of course, have a strong interest in its return."

Seelye says that apart from those displaced by the 1967 war, most Syrians are less concerned with a full return of the Golan than with securing the economic benefits and stability likely to come from a peace accord.

"The first concern of Syrians is to break out of the economic doldrums that they have been in for a long time and everybody feels that with peace the economy would open up and start moving forward. They are very concerned about the fact that Assad is ill and they are worried about instability that might occur if he dies in a situation where there is no peace with Israel."

As for Israel, its government needs to obtain a victorious-looking peace for very different reasons. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, elected early last year, has said he is ready to exchange much of the Golan Heights for peace guarantees but he still must win approval for any final settlement by a public referendum.

The referendum requirement was imposed upon the current Israeli government by the Israeli parliament during the tenure of former hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it remains highly uncertain that Barak can win a referendum if he sacrifices too much of the disputed plateau, which is now home to some 17,000 Israeli settlers, plus as many Syrian Druze who never left.

Nicole Brackman is an expert on Israeli politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She says that recent polls in Israel have shown the country is about equally divided over peace with Syria, with a small majority not in favor of any accord which would give up all of the Golan.

At the same time, she says the actual mechanism of holding a referendum -- and how much of a majority will be required to approve a peace deal -- remains to be determined.

"There remains to be passed in the Knesset a law governing the actual mechanism of the referendum, which means whether or not a referendum will require a simple majority or a super majority and that will mean, in essence, whether it requires a majority of all Israeli voters or a Jewish majority."

The super majority would require that even if Israeli Arab voters are deducted after the balloting there will still be a majority of voters in favor of the peace deal. Israeli Arabs, who constitute some 11 percent of the electorate, are considered mostly to support a peace deal. The super majority condition is widely considered to be essential in Israel to maintain national unity amid the strains of peacemaking.

"There is a consensus that this cannot be passed by just 50 percent plus one, that such a result would split Israeli society and, given the fact that there is also going to be an upcoming national decision on a deal with the Palestinians, that such a split in Israeli society would mean a very difficult situation for two extremely sensitive peace agreements."

As Israeli and Syrian negotiators continue to face off this week, Israelis are already preparing for nationwide campaigning by both the government and its opponents ahead of any referendum.

Both sides are believed to be bringing in U.S. media consultants who were a feature of Israeli elections early last year. And that guarantees that any Israeli-Syrian peace deal will represent just as much a test-of-strength for Israel's political parties as it does a personal test-of-strength for Hafez Assad.