Bargaining with Assad

Israeli negotiators must learn it is futile to assign Western political attitudes to our neighbors.

Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
As everyone knows by now, Israel and Syria recently began conducting indirect negotiations via Turkish mediators. After a brief hiatus, the talks will reportedly resume next week. The Israeli side has been led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, and his foreign policy adviser, Shalom Turgeman. Riad Daoudi, a legal expert in the Syrian Foreign Ministry, led the Damascus delegation. There seems to be some confusion about the framework of the talks. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem claimed Israel had committed to withdrawing to the 1967 lines, thereby ceding the Golan Heights. Olmert insisted he had promised no such thing. Still, the leaders of both countries seem pleased. "The contacts with Syria are a historic breakthrough," Olmert said. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who like Olmert is due to appear at the Mediterranean summit hosted by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on July 13, appears to regard the talks as a step toward his rehabilitation. IN PRINCIPLE, a well-negotiated agreement with Syria is in Israel's strategic interest. But for this very reason, Israeli negotiators might do well to keep some simple rules of bargaining in mind during the continuing talks. The first rule of negotiation: Know your primary objective, and carry a realistic assessment of achieving it. Israel's main goal is to weaken the alliance between Syria and Iran, and by extension improve the prospects of a strategic normalization with Damascus and the rest of the Arab world. The prospects of such a Syrian break with the Islamic Republic, never likely, were made even less so at end of last month, at the culmination of Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani's three-day visit to Teheran, when Syria and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding regarding defense issues. The agreement included reciprocal visits by military officials, joint training and technological cooperation. This brings us to the second rule of negotiation: Be aware of the adversaries of your adversary. Israeli officials, if they do not wish to act as pawns in Syria's bid for international respectability, ought to take stock of the reasons why even other Arab states refuse to engage with Syria. According to Egyptian officials, for instance, President Hosni Mubarak is staying away from an Arab mini-summit in Libya this week because he wishes to avoid Assad. In March, Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah boycotted an annual Arab summit in Syria out of similar considerations. The third rule: Know your position of relative strength. This means acknowledging that Syria, unlike Israel, is in crucial respects a failed state. Difficult as it is to recall now, Syria's emergence from under French colonial rule in 1946 brought with it high expectations. "Give us five years," the military ruler of the newly independent country, Husni Zaim, said in 1949, "and I will make Syria as prosperous and enlightened as Switzerland." WITH SYRIA'S oil fields - not to speak of a rich cultural and linguistic heritage - such boasts could be entertained. Yet the Syrians have not taken their place in the modern society of nations. Instead of prosperity, the country has been wracked by despotism, persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, harsh censorship, secret police in the casba - in short, by what Fouad Ajami in The Arab Predicament calls "politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting." These problems, from Hafez Assad's massacre of tens of thousands of his own people in the town of Hama to Syria's assassinations of Lebanese leaders, have very little to do with Israel. Culturally, Syrians suffer backwardness and isolation. Economically, they suffer stagnant growth and some of the lowest levels of research funding in the world. Despite its oil reserves, Syria is on the point of becoming a net oil importer. In Syria, to take one major indicator, estimates of last year's per-capita GDP are $4,300. In Israel, by contrast, per-capita GDP exceeded $28,800. IN SHORT, the Syrian masses, now numbering almost 20 million, are no better off than before independence; they merely serve different despots. Their leaders, meanwhile, habitually deflect blame onto "imperialism," and Israel. A final and most critical rule of negotiation: Avoid the temptation to project your values or assumptions onto the party sitting on the other side of the table. Israeli negotiators must learn that it is futile to assign Western political attitudes to - and demand democratic civility from - our neighbors, in the hope of resolving a conflict that would never have arisen had these attitudes existed in the first place.