The sight of Syria's foreign minister meeting Israel's prime minister face to face at the White House on Wednesday did not have the stunning drama that accompanied the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel's Knesset in 1977. But it was equally remarkable--enough so to revive hope of peace in the Middle East.
Nearly four years after negotiations between the two countries broke down, new circumstances and the deliberate and calculating ways of the Israeli and Syrian leaders justify the optimism. But the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is full of missed opportunities, and of leaders unable to risk change. It is partly this sense of missed chances that makes the leaders less likely to squander this brief opportunity.
For Israel, the talks began to seem possible with the election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Syrian President Hafez Assad, who is 71 and said to be unwell, is concerned about succession, his legacy and a sense that Syria is falling further behind in a rapidly changing world--all of which likely contributed to his agreeing to the talks.
The political risks for Barak have been widely analyzed and seem clear: If he agrees to return the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he faces certain opposition among hard-line groups at home. But Barak was well aware of that before he signaled his willingness to talk soon after his election. In Assad's case, however, there is a sense among many analysts that his bold move now is out of character. It is not.
Both countries always understood that a breakthrough was not possible without significant U.S. mediation, as well as financial assistance and security guarantees to implement any accord. Both countries understood that President Clinton's successor may not share the priorities of a president eager to cement his legacy. Clinton has made as many telephone calls to the Israeli and Syrian leaders in recent months as his secretary of state made trips to the Middle East during Clinton's entire first term.
Ultimately, it was Assad and Barak who made the bold decision to resume the talks, which are set to start up again on Jan. 3. If peace is possible now, it is because each leader trusts that the other is serious about compromise and capable of persuading his people to accept an agreement.
Although Assad has been a leader who errs on the side of caution, he has undertaken significant risks to exploit Syrian opportunities. In 1973, for example, he joined Sadat in a surprise war against Israeli forces in the Golan Heights and the Sinai. It was a war Assad had little chance of winning, but the political payoff was potentially greater than the military risks. Ultimately, his calculations were proven correct: Syria regained a small part of the Golan and succeeded in eliciting active U.S. mediation.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Assad made another striking decision: to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. After years of portraying the United States as an imperialist power intent on dividing the Arab world, and portraying himself as the leader of pan-Arabism, Assad joined the Americans in defeating a neighboring Arab nation with whom he shared the ideology of the Baath Party that rules in both states. This was no small move: While it assured Syria's interest in postwar diplomacy, it also created considerable tension at home, particularly with the military, which Assad had to lobby and persuade for weeks afterward. In the end, his decision helped Syria survive a difficult period in Arab politics.
Not surprisingly, Syria has moved cautiously with regard to Israel, in part because of its suspicion of Israeli motives. Nine years ago, as a member of then-representative Lee Hamilton's (D-Ind.) staff, and working with the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, I went to Damascus for the first time. I was trying to get a sense of how the region was reacting to the end of the Cold War. What I found was a remarkably strong fear of a dominant United States and an equally pervasive belief that Israel was a monolithic, expansionist state. (On subsequent trips, I have been struck by how much those suspicions have faded.)
In 1990, Syrians did not believe that the political divisions in Israel between left and right--Labor and Likud--were genuine; rather, they were seen as tactical differences over implementing what Syrians believed were Israel's expansionist aims. In the mid-1990s, the United States tried to persuade Syrian leaders that they would be better off making a deal with the government of Yitzhak Rabin than with a future Likud government. But many Syrians saw such arguments as pressure tactics. Eventually, it was the assassination of Rabin by a fellow Israeli, and the election of the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, that finally drove the point home. Barak's ousting of Netanyahu in June seemed like a promising opportunity.
In the past several years, new Arab television networks also have helped transform and broaden the way Syrians and other Arabs view Israel and its politics. The most popular Arab TV channel, Al-Jazeera, broadcasting from Qatar, even has a reporter in Israel's Knesset, bringing its divisive debates into Arab homes all over the region.
The return of the Golan Heights, which Assad himself lost during his tenure as defense minister, is at the heart of Syria's conflict with Israel. But the issue of Syria's national identity is perhaps a bigger problem. Certainly, Syria would have rejected the same deal that it is likely to get this time around (the Golan in exchange for peace) back in the 1970s or '80s; Syria opposed bilateral agreements between Israel and Arab states and, as an advocate of Arab nationalism, insisted on a comprehensive settlement that included the Palestinians. That, after all, is why Syria rejected the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.
Since then, the Palestinians' own bilateral negotiations with Israel have made such talks easier for Syria. Still, the political discourse in Syria remains not about a Syrian-Israeli conflict, but about an Arab-Israeli conflict. Even when, in Madrid in 1991, Syria negotiated with Israel bilaterally for the first time, its negotiating posture remained tied to the notion of a comprehensive peace--one involving other Arab states and the Palestinians.
The fact that the negotiations are now focused on bilateral issues--issues not involving a third party--is in itself no small accomplishment. But that focus also means that Syria, like Israel, will have some difficulty selling such a deal domestically. In a state where opposition to government is not readily expressed in the media, voices critical of a possible agreement are already being heard. One prominent Syrian writer, Ali Orsan, put it this way last week: "The success of these negotiations will facilitate many dangerous Arab changes regarding the Arab-Zionist conflict." Although Assad will undoubtedly find ways to prevent major opposition in the short term, he will still face the difficult task of reconstructing Syria's political identity as he moves away from pan-Arabism.
Syria certainly has much to gain from an agreement. Besides winning back the Golan Heights, it would likely be able to maintain its influence in Lebanon: In an era of war, Israel and Syria have conflicting interests in Lebanon, where Israel views Syria as a threat. But in an era of peace, Israel would likely see the Syrian influence in Lebanon as a stabilizing force. Syrian security would also be enhanced by an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, where 17,000 Israeli settlers live. And Western investors would likely take a new look at Syria.
What has Syria to offer in return? Officially the two countries have been at war since Israeli statehood in 1948. Besides bringing that to an end, clearly an Israeli goal, only Syria can assure a peaceful settlement on the last active front of the Arab-Israeli conflict in southern Lebanon. More importantly, the gates to relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world will not open without Israeli agreements with Syria, Lebanon and with the Palestinians--who are likely to reach a deal with Israel by a September 2000 deadline. With that, the psychological acceptance of Israel in the Arab world will change dramatically.
This link between a Syrian-Israeli peace and the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arabs is an important factor in the negotiations. Syria has always believed Israel's acceptance in the Arab world should come as a "reward"--after signing an agreement. Damascus has thus preferred mediated negotiations, while discouraging Syrians across the board from contacts with Israelis that would suggest increasing normalization of relations before Israel had withdrawn from the Golan. Israeli governments, on the other hand, have argued that Arab acceptance of the Jewish state would help Israel persuade its citizens to make concessions.
Some Palestinians worry that a Syrian-Israeli pact could undermine their leverage in negotiating with Israel. On the contrary, the benefits outweigh the costs. A Syria at peace with Israel has more influence on the Palestinian question than a Syria at war with the Jewish state. As for the Israeli public, it may be easier to accept concessions with the Palestinians if the outcome is seen to be a comprehensive peace that eventually includes Syria, the Palestinians and the Lebanese.
In the end, however, the fact that the benefits outweigh the risks for all four parties will not ensure the negotiations' success, or that domestic political issues will not derail an agreement. Both Barak and Assad could have "buyer's remorse" before they clinch a deal. But for once, an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict seems within reach.
Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.