Barak, Assad and a crack of opportunity
By Yoel Marcus (Haaretz-18/4/2000)

I would gladly give up all my high-tech NASDAQ stocks for a discreet glimpse at American President Bill Clinton's reaction when his face was slapped by Hafez Assad at Geneva. And for the opportunity to hear Clinton curse the Syrian president's mother and father and make minced meat of his advisers who dragged him all the way to Switzerland just to be humiliated.It should be recalled here that the hopes for this summit meeting were very high - so high, in fact, that the prime minister's office even made contingency plans for the possibility that Ehud Barak might be invited at the last minute to make it a threesome in Geneva. Unfortunately, the great expectations led only to a great disappointment.

Barak was not the only one who misread Assad. The whole Western world, especially the Americans, misread him. It would be a good idea for us all to remember that the negotiations with Assad at various levels have been going on for nearly an entire decade. At the Madrid conference, with Yossi Ben-Aharon in Washington, with Itamar Rabinovich, with Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, with Uri Savir at the Wye plantation, with Bibi through Ron Lauder, with the speech Assad delivered at Geneva where he declared his adoption of a peace strategy, with Yitzhak Rabin and his famous "deposit," with Barak and Farouk Shara at Shepherdstown.

Israeli and American military intelligence experts shared the assessment that Assad was interested in peace, and Clinton saw himself entering the history books minus the Lewinsky stain. The fact that, after a decade, the window of opportunity has become, as Barak puts it, a mere crack in the wall is, of course, no coincidence.

The principal reason is the modus operandi of the chief stars of this soap opera: Assad, whose consultation sessions and decision-making take place in tete-a-tete meetings - that is, meetings Assad holds with his own mirror image - and Barak, who not only consults with himself but also plays chess with himself.

Immediately after the elections, he moved all the chess pieces in the direction of a peace treaty with Syria. The coalition with Shas was built for the sake of the national referendum on the terms of that treaty. Barak prepared Israeli public opinion for a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, publicly adopted Rabin's "deposit," and praised Assad as the glorious leader of the modern Syrian republic.

In this game of chess, Barak also made the moves that Assad would have made if Assad had acted in accordance with the thinking that Barak thought should have been going on in the Syrian president's head. Barak had assumed that Assad wanted a peace treaty with Israel to be part of the inheritance he would pass on to his son Bashar, whom he is grooming as his successor. Barak had also assumed that Assad did not want to pass up the opportunity of a peace treaty with Clinton still in the White House.

However, when Assad did not act as Barak had predicted he would in the chess match our prime minister is playing with himself, Barak moved on to the game of poker, pulling an ace out of his sleeve: A planned pullout of Israeli troops from Lebanon by July 7, which was a tactic he wanted to use in order to exert pressure on Assad.

The banner headline, "It's all in the bag," led us to believe that the talks between Syria and Israel had reached an advanced stage and were being conducted along clandestine channels, much like the Dayan-Tahomi negotiations in a previous chapter in Israeli history.

It now emerges that Barak had relied primarily on the Clinton administration and that was his biggest mistake. No breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations has ever been made through America's initiative.

Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem without Washington's knowledge, a peace treaty was signed with King Hussein despite the Americans' assessment that he would never sign before Syria. The Oslo agreement was also achieved without Uncle Sam's help. The United States was, however, great as far as the ceremonial side of the breakthroughs was concerned - and I am not trying to minimize the importance of that function.

In these bizarre negotiations, where one of the partners consults with his mirror image and the other plays chess with himself, Assad has managed, almost without moving a muscle, to lead Barak to make far-reaching concessions.

Barak has given up the entire Golan Heights, and, in effect, Mount Hermon as well, despite its unequaled value as an intelligence-gathering point. Because of a hundred meters of beachfront on the Sea of Galilee, Assad has left Barak stuck in the mud - much like a dying butterfly struggling to free itself - with a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon on his hands.

Nevertheless, there is still some chance that a peace treaty may be signed between Israel and Syria. Another two and a half months remain until the July 7 withdrawal deadline. As that deadline draws closer, the two sides will continue to engage in psychological warfare. Barak has deliberately given wide publicity to his decision on the renewal of construction activity on the Golan Heights, while Syria has leaked out to the media news of an arms deal with Russia involving missiles and Sukhoi fighter planes. The two sides will put the heat on each other and on themselves. Barak will be under pressure because he fears that the warnings being issued by the top brass in the Israel Defense Force concerning both the possible renewal of terrorism and a military confrontation could prove true. Assad will be under pressure because he is afraid that he may lose his last chance of ever getting back the territories we captured from Syria. Both leaders fear a domestic political debacle should everything collapse.

Assad has pushed Barak as far as our prime minister is willing to go. If the negotiations resume, before or after July 7, that hundred-meter stretch of Kinneret beachfront will be Assad's opening point. It will also be his last opportunity to retrieve the captured territory from Israel in his lifetime. If a window of opportunity can become a mere crack in the wall, there is no reason why a crack in the wall cannot turn into a window of opportunity. We will just have to wait and see