Skip the astrology, probe Syrian seriousness

Israel must know if Damascus is ready to negotiate over a package of issues before responding.

assad cool 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad cool 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In trying to determine the advisability of negotiations with Syria, some of our foremost security experts appear to be groping in the dark. Not possessing credible information about the policy orientations of the Syrian regime, they revert to devising strategies of which astrologers would be proud: What does Assad "really" think? What are Assad's "real" intentions? What "lies behind" his public statements? With that kind of methodology, and limited to talmudic interpretations of Syria's sometimes contradictory public statements, no wonder the country's top intelligence authorities arrive at incoherent results that only add to the policy confusions of a government that has lost its way. The question is not what Syria's intentions are, but what is a possible agenda for Israeli-Syrian negotiations. From the Syrian perspective, there is only one item on the agenda: the Golan Heights. It is thus only natural that Israeli reactions reflect the political positions within Israel on the future of the Golan, predictably polarized along the hawk/dove divide. Yet this is not how Israel should address the issue. What Israel should do first is determine the ingredients it would like to include in any future negotiations with Syria. Here are the items:
  • obviously, the future of the Golan Heights;
  • the future relationship between Syria and Hizbullah;
  • the role Syria plans to play in Lebanon, given the fact that this impacts directly on Israeli-Syrian relations;
  • relations, political and military, between Syria and Iran;
  • the future support and asylum given by Syria to various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other organizations which at the present operate freely out of Damascus; To this should be added that Syrian participation in the UN-sanctioned investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is among the issues about which information would be helpful. THESE ARE not preconditions for negotiations: nothing should prejudge the outcome of negotiations on any of these items. But looking at the items on the list, it becomes clear that there appears to be a deep gap between the Syrian and Israeli agendas. What Syria is interested in is exclusively the Golan Heights - in the Syrian book there isn't even room for negotiations about it, since Syria views the area as its legitimate territory, and negotiations should only be about the modalities of an Israeli withdrawal. On the Israeli side, on the other hand, we have a package. No responsible Israeli government could seriously consider dealing with Syria on the Golan Heights exclusively, without discussing the other issues which, at the moment, Damascus does not see as part of an Israeli-Syrian deal. Viewing negotiations in the framework of such a package would also receive understanding from Washington. The question is not whether Israel should negotiate with Syria or not. The question is, what should the negotiations be about? There are discreet ways of finding out: An ideal Israeli-Syrian negotiating processes should have different committees dealing with each of these issues. Before knowing if Syria is ready for such a package - even without prejudging the specific issues - it is impossible for Israel to make a sensible response. This calls for quiet diplomacy, not for shrill statements or Delphic analyses of Syria's "real" intentions. It also calls for a political leadership which is capable of strategic thinking and is not haunted by a craving for daily positive short-term news headlines. The writer, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.