Washington Watch: Waltzing with Bashar and Bibi

When it comes to Israel and Syria, there's no agreement until there's an agreement.

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July 29, 2009 22:00
4 minute read.
Washington Watch: Waltzing with Bashar and Bibi

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The meeting last weekend between US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus may have been unproductive for Mitchell, but it was a big success for Assad. Mitchell called the meetings "candid and positive" - diplo-speak for "we disagreed on nearly everything, but no one stormed out of the room" - but the Syrian president got what he wanted: the fifth visit so far this year by American diplomats courting him after nearly eight years of being snubbed as an evildoer by the Bush administration. "Assad wants everyone to come court him to show how important he is and that he isn't isolated any longer. But he doesn't want to give anything in return," said Tom Dine, a senior adviser on Syrian affairs for Search for Common Ground, a conflict resolution group. There is no evidence that US-Syrian discussions have gone beyond a few small gestures, he said. Reviving Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations remains high on Mitchell's agenda, but reports from Jerusalem indicate he didn't bring any good news from Damascus. BOTH ASSAD and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insist they are ready to resume negotiations without conditions after they were broken off in the wake of the war in Gaza. It's hard to take either seriously. Netanyahu last week told American Jewish leaders in a conference call that he is "ready for a resumption of talks with Syria with no preconditions," but that he had "serious doubts" that Assad is "really committed." Netanyahu campaigned against returning the Heights to Syria. "We must not leave the Golan Heights because of its strategic height," he said. "We must not make peace with a dictatorial regime because this will be a peace that we will not be able to protect." Since his government was formed, Netanyahu's National Security Adviser Dr. Uzi Arad told Haaretz's Ari Shavit that this government "will not leave the Golan Heights." Any deal with Syria "must leave Israel deep in the Golan," said Arad. That is necessary "for strategic, military and land-settlement reasons. Needs of water, wine and view." Asked if Netanyahu's position is "peace yes, Golan no," Arad answered, "Yes." Netanyahu's office tried to distance itself from Arad's interview, saying the adviser was speaking for himself, but a former senior military official who knows both men well called Arad "his master's voice." ASSAD ISN'T any more convincing regarding his professed desire for peace. "The land is not negotiable, and Israel knows that we are not going to negotiate the line of 1967," he said. Israel wants to know what Syria is willing to give in return for the land - normalization, trade, tourism, political and diplomatic relations, an economic presence on the Golan - but Assad said, "You discuss everything after the peace and getting your land. Not before." Assad continues to intersperse calls for negotiation with empty threats to take back the Golan by force, saying Israel knows only "the language of blood." An odd charge coming from the son of the dictator who slaughtered as many as 40,000 of his own people at Hama in 1982 in retaliation for anti-regime violence by the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad so far rejects direct talks with Israel, unlike his father, who sent his vice president to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in 2000 to meet with then-prime minister Ehud Barak. Those talks collapsed when both sides got cold feet, and even president Bill Clinton's personal intervention couldn't close the deal. Efforts to revive the talks were futile - Barak and Clinton left office shortly afterward and the September 11 attacks put Syria on the Bush enemies list. Indirect Israeli-Syrian talks were hosted last year by Turkey, which stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the American leadership. The Bush administration discouraged the meetings, suspicious that Assad was only using them for protection from American pressure to halt cooperation with foreign troops going to Iraq. TURKEY MAY have trouble reprising its mediator role in the wake of its very bitter denunciation of Israel's conduct in Gaza, but Ankara and Jerusalem seem anxious to prevent that rift from damaging their more critical strategic relationship. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he was impressed that Assad "wants to engage with the West" and is "willing to do the things he needs to do." But most people are skeptical, including a Capitol Hill source who has known Kerry for years; "Kerry swallowed Assad's Kool-Aid and has become his leading advocate." Israel and Syria may be miles apart, literally, regarding the Heights today - Netanyahu prefers the mountain view while Assad would like some beachfront property in the Galilee - but 10 years ago Netanyahu was willing to consider returning to the 1967 border, according to a new book by former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai. Mordechai was "privy to negotiations" conducted secretly by Netanyahu's friend, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, according to Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai. When Hafez Assad, the current president's father, insisted on seeing a map showing the extent of Israeli withdrawal Netanyahu was proposing, he refused and terminated the talks, Uzi Arad said, according to Ben-Yishai. Top Clinton advisers said Lauder sent the president a memorandum reporting on the negotiations, but Lauder years later said he was simply offering "my personal view of an offer Syria may find acceptable" and his friend Netanyahu "never agreed to withdraw to these lines and never authorized me to make any such offer." In other words, there's no agreement until there's an agreement that is signed and published, and even then it's open to interpretation. And that brings us back to square one, putting conditions on unconditional negotiations.

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