Analysis: One at a time

Syria or the Palestinians. Which track, if any, should Israel pursue?

Palestinian chidren (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian chidren
(photo credit: AP)
Syria or the Palestinians. Which track, if any, should Israel pursue? This is the dilemma facing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz called Wednesday for Israel to give priority to the Palestinian track over negotiating with Damascus. Others have called to do the opposite. But why can't Israel pursue both tracks simultaneously? The answer is rooted in the weakness of our government and political system, as well as in the interconnectedness of the issues involved and regional geopolitical dynamics. On the administrative level, the institutions of government cannot prepare for two such complex sets of negotiations. The fragmented executive, led by ministers who are political rivals, would have a very hard time sustaining the required cross-agency cooperation. Furthermore, the political echelon would not be able to provide the bureaucrats with clear political directives due to the need to preserve the stability of the coalition. Also, suffice it to say that the prime minister's bureau includes only a handful of people who can manage such negotiations. Politics is a constraint as well. The coalition that will support serious substantive engagement with Syria is different from the coalition that will support similar engagement with the Palestinians. Central forces within the present Olmert coalition are opposed to any bold moves in one track or the other. Hence, pursuing both tracks simultaneously could compromise the political stability of the government beyond repair. The tracks are also interconnected in a variety of ways. The issues of borders, refugees, water, security, end-of-conflict, finality-of-claims and normalization are on the agendas of both tracks. Each track will create precedents for the other; some will work in our favor while others will serve the Arab side. So it would be very difficult to manage the effects of our positions in one track on our standing in the other. For example, the Syrian track is expected to reestablish the principle of full Israeli withdrawal from all territories that were taken over in 1967, which would reinforce a pillar of the Palestinian position. Similarly, the negotiations with the Palestinians on the issue of refugees would affect Syria and Lebanon. Then, there is the issue of sequencing. Whereas Israel demands that the Arab side reins in the radical factions as a condition for political progress, the Arab side has a reverse view of the sequence: first an agreement and only then security measures. Therefore, Israel can expect to negotiate under fire in one track or both. Finally, there is Iran and the "resistance" network. Negotiations would constitute a threat to its legitimacy. If concluded, agreements with Syria or with the Palestinians would be a major setback to the agenda that challenges Israel's right to exist. Hence, one can expect a significant effort from Iran to undermine any progress. Obviously, negotiating one track at a time has its limitations as well. For example, the neglected party - the Palestinians or Syria - would not want to be marginalized and would take actions - terrorism is definitely a likely option - to prevent such a development. Also, one could argue that the above debate is futile since at present Israel has no partner on the Palestinian or on the Syrian side. That argument would be that the Palestinians are either unable or unwilling to negotiate, take decisions and implement them while the Syrians are soft talking their way out of the axis of evil and have no serious intention of living up to their commitments in any deal signed with Israel. But as far as the debate regarding whether Israel can pursue parallel negotiations with the Syrians and the Palestinians, the answer is: It would have to be either or. If at all. Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute. He served as secretary of the Israeli delegation in the negotiations with the PLO from 1999-2001.