The Washington summit between Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa of Syria and the renewal of the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track is the most auspicious moment yet for reaching an Israeli-Syrian accommodation. The stakes are high. Success could lead to peace between Israel and Syria, to a peaceful Israeli exit from Lebanon and to a revival of the quest for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. Failure could lead to a long-term collapse of the Israeli-Syrian track, to confrontation in Lebanon and to further disruptions of the precarious peace process.
My comparative optimism derives from four considerations:
* Assad's decision. The Washington summit was made possible by Syrian President Hafez Assad's decision to remove his demand that Israel accept Syria's interpretation of the past record of the two countries' negotiation and commit itself in any event to withdrawal from the Golan to the lines of June 4, 1967--as specified by Syria as a precondition to the resumption of negotiations. Instead, Syria agreed to the "constructive ambiguity" of a formula stating merely that the negotiations will be resumed "at the point at which they had been interrupted" (in March 1996).
Assad's insistence on his preconditions during the past four months led many to argue that he was not really interested in negotiations. His decision to resume the negotiations can, of course, be seen as a tactical move designed to stave off international pressure. But this is hardly likely. A renewal of the negotiations in Washington, on the main stage, and the first encounter between the Syrian political level and Israel's prime minister are too large an investment for a mere tactical gain.
It seems rather that Assad, who made the fundamental decision to end the conflict with Israel several years ago and who has vacillated in his determination during the past few years, has decided to opt for peace and to do it now. A biological clock and a political clock are ticking in Damascus, and, if this version is correct, Assad must have calculated that peace must be made within the next few months or be postponed sine die.
* Barak's leadership. Prime Minister Barak came to office with a preference for peace with Syria as his first major move in the peace process, and with the determination to go the distance. He was not willing to do it at all costs, and refused to accept Syria's preconditions (while indicating that he was ready for a massive withdrawal). His willingness to make a bold move and depart Lebanon unilaterally may have been an important element in ending the stalemate of the past few months. Barak relies on a comparatively large coalition, and is perceived by the Israeli public as a centrist whose concept of peace is embedded in a view of Israel's national security. As a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and as a decorated war hero, he enjoys an authority reminiscent of that of his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin.
* Clinton's stewardship. Washington's political timetable is known to all the participants in this process. President Clinton has several more months of effective leadership. He had invested time and resources in the Israeli-Syrian track and is thoroughly familiar with the issues and the actors. His motivation to crown his previous achievements in the Israeli-Arab peace process with a Syrian-Israeli deal is strong. He can be counted on to invest considerable time and resources in this effort.
* The cumulative impact of several years of negotiation. The Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations were launched at the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 and took off in the summer of 1992, soon after the formation of Yitzhak Rabin's government. The negotiations had been interrupted by crises and suspensions and yet produced an impressive body of ideas and agreements. It can safely be said that the broad outline of the Syrian-Israeli agreement is quite familiar to both parties. Ehud Barak is the fourth Israeli prime minister to engage in a serious negotiation with Hafez Assad. He can draw important lessons from the successes and failures of his predecessors and build on both the achievements they have obtained and the concessions they had made.
There are, of course, numerous countervailing forces and considerations. While the contours of the settlement are familiar, several crucial issues--the extent of withdrawal, the final border line, the nature of peace, the security arrangements, water--have yet to be negotiated. The ups and downs of the negotiations have produced a residue of suspicion and ill will. There is a disparity between Barak, Israel's ultimate decision-maker, and Charaa, who reports to his president. Israel's prime minister faces a difficult domestic challenge, and the specter of violence and terrorism continues to hover over the negotiations.
During the coming days and weeks, wisdom, boldness and creativity will be required to maximize the positive potential inherent in the present circumstances and to overcome the enormous difficulties that may yet obstruct this effort.
The writer, president of Tel Aviv University, was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Syria negotiator.