Middle East peacemaking is full of tortuous twists and turns, and the currency of diplomatic breakthroughs has been devalued by nearly a decade of advances and setbacks.
But President Clinton's announcement today that Israel and Syria will resume peace talks after a four-year hiatus is a genuine breakthrough, and the fillip that negotiations will be launched next week in Washington--at a higher level than they have ever been conducted--has sparked a burst of optimism in the Middle East, albeit a cautious one. In a scene that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, an Israeli prime minister and a Syrian foreign minister are scheduled to shake hands.
"It's an unprecedented event, a meeting at such a high level between Israeli and Syrian officials," said Gadi Baltiansky, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "I don't think there is a done deal; this is not the case. There are still gaps and tough decisions ahead. . . . But if both sides will take the courageous decisions and are genuine in their intentions to reach peace, it shouldn't take too long till we know if we're going toward a peace agreement or there is no chance to reach it."
Said another Israeli official, slightly more wryly: "I wouldn't book a ticket to Damascus right now, nor to the White House signing ceremony. But from a procedural point of view, this is definitely a major step."
American mediation was critical in bringing the two sides to the table, and apparently in papering over a dispute over the point at which their talks broke down four years ago. The Israelis insist they are resuming negotiations with no preconditions, while the Syrians have maintained that Israel agreed in 1995 to return the Golan Heights--and must fulfill that commitment before talks are revived.
It is uncertain whether Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright squeezed concessions from one side or the other on that point, or coaxed them simply to agree to disagree. "It's unclear who blinked here," said David Makovsky, executive editor of the Jerusalem Post. "There's a creative ambiguity that enables both sides to define where the point is" at which talks were suspended.
Most analysts said the talks could founder over a number of long-standing disputes, including control over water resources in the Golan Heights and security issues, including the positioning of troops and the presence of international forces. Israel also continues to insist that it maintain an electronic eavesdropping station on Mount Hermon in the Golan.
Still, for the first time since early 1996, three major protagonists in the Middle East drama--Israel, Syria and the Palestinians--will be engaged in what are likely to be intensive land-for-peace negotiations in the coming weeks.
Israel will be bargaining with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over handing over large chunks of West Bank territory in exchange for a comprehensive peace deal, and with Syrian President Hafez Assad over returning the Golan Heights in exchange for a similarly sweeping settlement.
The dual negotiations present a special opportunity for Barak, who will have the tactical advantage of using progress with one partner to spur talks with the other--lest he be left behind. Moreover, on both major tracks of negotiations, the sides will be laboring under a tight timetable set principally by Barak.
The Israeli prime minister, who took office in July, has committed himself to sealing a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians by next fall. Arafat appears determined to proclaim the birth of an independent Palestinian state by next September, if not sooner.
At the same time, Barak has reiterated time and again his commitment to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July. That appears to have lit a fire under the Syrians, who control Lebanon. The Syrians fear that an Israeli departure would deprive them of leverage to recover the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, because it would remove the justification for continued military action against Israeli forces. Barak's threat of a unilateral pullback has turned southern Lebanon into a source of leverage for the Israelis, and unnerved the Syrians, diplomats say.
There were other factors pushing the sides to the bargaining table.
The Israelis are eager to conclude a deal with Assad, who has led Syria since 1970 and is reported to be in poor health, before he fades from the scene. Barak, who has made a point of publicly lauding Assad as a strong and reliable leader, believes it would be far more difficult to make a deal with any successor, whose position would be less secure.
Israel is also eager for a withdrawal of its forces from southern Lebanon, where they have been bogged down in a self-declared buffer zone for 15 years. Despite Barak's threat of unilateral withdrawal, he has said he prefers to leave Lebanon peaceably. And the key to that is Syria.
Syria also had strong incentives to resume talks. In the view of analysts, Assad is eager to hand over power to his son Bashar, and wants him to start with a clean slate--the Golan returned to Syrian control and peace with Israel.
Staggering from a bloated, corrupt and centralized economy, Syria is also desperate for the increased trade investment that is likely to follow a peace deal with Israel.
Finally, American and European diplomats have repeatedly told Assad that he missed a genuine opportunity for a deal with Israel under the pro-peace government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. They have urged him not to make the same mistake with Barak, who has styled himself as Rabin's protege and heir.