Analyze This: Talking Turkey in Istanbul

Chill winds from Damascus will prevent this.

The official communiqué last week announcing the resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria stressed that it was in accordance with the principles established at the 1991 Madrid conference. That gathering was indeed the historic first occasion Israeli and Syrian officials sat opposite each other at a diplomatic gathering whose specific purpose was to resolve all outstanding issues between the two nations. But one can only hope that the new round of talks between Jerusalem and Damascus will proceed far from any "spirit of Madrid" as it was manifested at that particular event. Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, pressured to attend by US president George H.W. Bush and his tough-talking secretary of state James Baker, didn't arrive at the Spanish capital in a particularly conciliatory mood, and certainly had no intention of relinquishing the Golan Heights to the Damascus regime of Hafez Assad in which he placed no trust. As for the Syrians - well, this is what former US Middle East diplomat Aaron David Miller, one of the Madrid Conference architects, had to say about that subject in his recent book The Much-Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace: "The prize for chutzpah, even by the low standards of Madrid speeches, had to go to Syrian foreign minister Farouk Shara... Shara was a man of small stature and even smaller world view. Admittedly, given Assad's hard-line views, he wasn't interested in reaching out. As I watched him on the conference's final day, standing at the speaker's podium in his two-inch elevator heels, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Shara had given a tough speech in the first session. Now he was in overkill mode. 'Let me show you an old picture of Shamir when he was 34 years old,' Shara began, holding up an old British 'wanted' poster of a much younger Shamir from his days in the Stern gang. 'He kills peace mediators and talks about Syrian, Lebanese terrorism.' "We never really called Shara on his antics. We were prepared to beat up on the Palestinians, but we acquiesced to Syria's refusal to engage in any serious public diplomacy. On reflection, I think this willingness to tolerate from Syria what we wouldn't accept from the Palestinians proved costly. It only reinforced Assad's belief that he could do peacemaking his own way, without the public diplomacy that the Egyptians, Palestinians, and Jordanians had so effectively used with the Israelis." Costly indeed. The post-Madrid talks went nowhere, and neither did the Shepherdstown discussions of 2000, when Hafez Assad once again sent Shara in his place to negotiate with the same grudging attitude that suggested Israel should simply be grateful for his showing up. Shara pointedly again refused to shake hands with any of the Israelis present, including then-prime minister Ehud Barak, or even to meet with them unless a senior US official was present. The cool atmosphere at the talks and the chill winds that continued to blow from Damascus prompted even author and fervent peace advocate Amos Oz to remark: "They [the Syrians] think that we will give them the Golan and they will send us a receipt by fax. That is not good enough for me. If it continues like this it will be difficult to convince Israelis in a [Golan] referendum - even me." Shara will not be taking part in the latest round of talks scheduled to begin next week in Turkey. Although he survived the transition from Hafez to Bashar Assad, two years ago he was shuffled out of the foreign minister's position and kicked upstairs to the office of vice president. That shift has been widely interpreted as a reaction to Shara's mishandling of Syrian policy toward Lebanon, where his characteristic arrogance (and possible complicity in the assassination of Lebanese president Rafik Hariri) cost Damascus dearly in its efforts to maintain dominance over Beirut. Some seasoned observers of Syria in the Arab media have interpreted the Assad regime's decision to re-engage Israel through Turkish mediation as a policy victory for Shara's successor as foreign minister, Walid Muallem, over his predecessor's more uncompromising stance. But if Shara won't be in Ankara in the flesh, his spirit is still evident in the way the talks have progressed so far - with Damascus refusing to speak directly to Israeli representatives and no words or signs at all out of Damascus that would convince an Amos Oz, or just about any Israeli, that Syria is truly prepared to live in real peace with its southern neighbor in return for the Golan. It needn't have been this way. The Syrian regime's unbending attitude and disdain for public diplomacy was once understood as in part a reflection of Hafez Assad's sphinx-like personality and rigid Ba'athist-Marxist totalitarian convictions. When his Western-educated son took power, there was initial hope that Bashar would pursue a different course, internally and externally, even if more in style than substance. That hasn't even remotely happened. After making some early noises about opening up Syrian society, Assad has presided over a tough human-rights crackdown the past few years, arresting several human rights advocates while tightening restrictions on free expression, including on Internet access. On the foreign front, Damascus has only deepened its ties with radical Islamic Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, matching those deeds with the Syrian president's continued belligerent rhetoric towards Jerusalem, Beirut and Washington. Nobody expects Assad to make a Sadat-style visit to Jerusalem anytime soon, nor to send the Israeli people Rosh Hashana greetings as Arafat once did. Or, unfortunately, even to pave the way to trust through a strictly humanitarian gesture, such as returning home the remains of former Israeli spy Eli Cohen while his widow Nadia still lives. But that doesn't mean that the Olmert government shouldn't raise an issue like this with the Syrians in the most public way possible, to make it clear to Damascus this time around that they can no longer expect to do peacemaking without helping to build public trust between the two sides. There is understandable general skepticism that the gaps between Israel and Syria, and respective political strengths of their two leaders, make this round of talks a non-starter from the get-go. Even if true, these discussions could at least help lay a new foundation for future negotiations when circumstances are more in favor of Jerusalem and Damascus making a deal. There's no way, though, the two sides will start talking turkey, if the chill wind from Syria doesn't ease off, and the tone of the upcoming discussions in Turkey are not at least a few degrees warmer than they were at Madrid or Shepherdstown.