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If Israel negotiates with Syria

As much as the traffic can bear

an interview with Uzi Arad

bitterlemons: When you led negotiations with Syria under the Netanyahu government, what were your calculations regarding the effect on the Palestinian track?

Arad: The driving consideration was that by activating the Syrian track, we were also improving Israel's maneuvering space and capabilities vis-a-vis the Palestinians. If you recall, the interim negotiations with the Palestinians that culminated in the Wye River Conference took place in 1998. It is no coincidence therefore that in the summer of 1998, during the weeks and months preceding Wye, Syrian-Israeli indirect negotiations reached their peak. The Syrians were always surprised at the fact that each successive [Israeli] prime minister appeared to give priority or preference to movement on the Syrian track, a pattern that was true for Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak. But the Syrians repeatedly found themselves stalled at the end of the process, with the Israelis reengaging the Palestinians.

In the summer of 1998 the Syrians felt rightly that Israel was on the verge of concluding what was to become in October the Wye agreement. Because they had to recapture primacy they understood they had to make a deal attractive to Israel. President Hafez Asad acted very much as "an old man in a hurry", for two reasons. He realized he was nearing the end of his role. But he also realized that an agreement with the Palestinians was in the making. It was very much Asad who showed greater flexibility and a willingness to conclude the deal quickly.

bitterlemons: How did this affect the Palestinians?

Arad: As near as I can tell they were not aware of the negotiations [with Syria] at the time. There were fragments of gossip, but they were not aware of the intensive shuttle diplomacy that took place in August and September. But one cannot rule out the possibility that the Americans, who knew about the talks with Syria, tipped them off to nudge them towards an agreement.

bitterlemons: What has changed since then?

Arad: In the previous decade two considerations that affected Israeli thinking—beyond the issues on their own merits—were the Lebanese situation, which at the time was festering and costing us, and the negotiations with the Palestinians. Both had the effect of increasing Israeli interest in moving first on the Syrian front, so as to increase our leverage vis-a-vis the Palestinians as well as to resolve the Lebanese imbroglio by negotiating with Syria.

These calculations are no longer operative, due to three developments. First, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000, and with all the ensuing consequences regarding the Palestinians, this had the effect of lessening Israel's interest in dealing with Syria. Secondly, the demise of Hafez Asad and the emergence of his son Bashar have created a discontinuity and a high degree of uncertainty as to whom we are dealing with. And thirdly, the post-9/11 post-Iraq Middle East is a different region in ways that project upon the Syrian issue in Israeli or for that matter American eyes. The net effect of these developments is that there is not as high an Israeli interest in moving on the Syrian track now as there was under previous circumstances.

bitterlemons: Would you yourself recommend negotiating now with Syria?

Arad: Israel should certainly consider pursuing the Syrian option, taking into account all that has changed and the new opportunities that present themselves. This time Israel's approach would be less motivated by the effect on the Palestinian track as connected to regional factors. These include American objectives and Syrian weakness, but also the shifting conditions in the Middle East as manifested by many of the consequences of the American action in Iraq, e.g., what has happened in Libya and Syria.

I personally believe that it would not consume too much of our energies to engage the Syrians with a view to exploring these new vistas. There is no rush, no urgency, Bashar Asad could very well be a young man in no hurry and neither are we, but the changed circumstances could suggest the possibility of a new deal with the Syrians that would better suit the present and changing Middle East. Just as Syria has shown greater flexibility toward Turkey, and considering that it may have new objectives in its relations with Europe and the US, I would not be surprised if, when it comes to the contours of a territorial deal between us and Syria, it showed greater flexibility than in the past.

bitterlemons: So you believe the Syrians are serious?

Arad: I share the assessment of Israeli intelligence that Bashar Asad's desire to engage Israel is genuine. This clearly indicates that Bashar may be feeling pressure as well as reconsidering his circumstances and showing an interest in changing his regional and international conditions. This could be a signal that there may be greater flexibility in Syria's present position which, if properly leveraged by the US and Israel through the use of incentives and disincentives, could result in a future deal some time down the road. The pacing of the process could be decided taking into account the Palestinian track so as to make sure that each is being pursued to the limit the traffic can bear without one interfering with the other or adversely affecting it.

bitterlemons: Will Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon negotiate with Syria in the near future?

Arad: Evidently Sharon has shown little interest in pursuing that option. Of course this could always be a tactical display of reluctance, but it could also be genuine since his hands are full with his present initiative on the Palestinian issue.

- Published 16/2/2004 © bitterlemons.org  - Dr. Uzi Arad is director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, and adviser to the Foreign Relations and Armed Forces Committee of the Knesset. He is former foreign policy adviser to PM Netanyahu and served in various senior positions in the Mossad.

Bitterlemons-international.org aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 22-02-2004



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