No thanks, Assad
By Gideon Samet (Jerusalem Post-12/4/2000)
With a heavy heart, it's possible to say good-bye to peace with Syria. It's not only possible, but better that way - because Assad is bitter to the point of being reprehensible, and also because of another half-dozen decisive factors. It could have been wonderful. The fantastic vision of shopping in Damascus (Hey, Ya'acov, check out these unbelievable bargains!), those trips through Syria to Europe, and the symbolic significance of the end of that damn hatred between Damascus and Jerusalem. But no thanks. This is not how to make peace. It will be one of the greatest surprises in the history of agreements, and in fact, the entire history of Israeli politics, if there is an agreement. Assad hasn't given Israel an inch. He wants a deal that no Israeli government could ever pass. But this isn't about guessing. In the current circumstances, it's better to give up making a deal with the Sphinx from Damascus. For long-suffering supporters of the peace process who even persevered through the gloom of hostility with the Palestinians, it won't be easy to give up now. But there are reasons why it is practically inevitable. First, of course, Assad gives the impression of being unwilling to adopt even the minimal amount reasonable of diplomatic give-and-take.
For someone returning to the country after several weeks abroad, the one thing that stands out in the frozen landscape of almost all Ehud Barak's activities is the endless concessions he has made to Syria without getting anything in return.
An observer gets the impression that the channels we have employed for reaching agreement with Syria have dragged us back to the stone age of diplomacy. This is not how international business is conducted in the new global culture. It's a cheap, unbearable bazaar tale. Another reason is that negotiations with Syria will ruin for us - and them - the toughest deadline of all, the withdrawal from Lebanon. If there are talks, Assad could easily make them drag on to July using all his old shticks. And then he'll say to the Americans, "Come on, I came this far, do the Israelis really have to withdraw from Lebanon now?" For Barak, missing the deadline would mean political disaster. Another lengthy round of negotiations with Syria would also mean a further delay in the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement.
While talking with the Syrians, Barak won't allow himself to do what in any case his heart isn't exactly letting him do now: take the not-so-simple difficult steps (including a deal over Jerusalem) an agreement with Arafat requires. Barak could end up with a delayed withdrawal from Lebanon and a delayed deal with the Palestinians - and no agreement with Syria.
Barak won't be able to pass a national referendum based on what Assad is not ready to give. Euphoric to the point of concern, but weakened for a half-dozen other reasons, the prime minister won't win a majority for a questionable agreement.
He'll end up knocked out of the ring - or just wasting a lot of time and telling the nation there's nothing to question. He isn't blind, of course, to the possibility that all his concessions and efforts will fail because of the other side. In his eyes, that's the preferable outcome. Because even if there's a draft agreement, squeezing Israel twice at the same time is too much for the Israeli stomach and for his political well-being.
Besides, who exactly are we trying to do business with over there? Even if the urine samples the Mossad acquires from Assad do not show any terminal illness, the next generation to take power in Syria is more mysterious than any we have encountered among our other neighbors. The Damascus government's raison d'etre, apparently for quite some time now, has been to keep the struggle against Israel alive. On the other hand, we have clear-cut business to conduct with the Palestinians, and it's not far from done. The Palestinians won't press for a quick solution and talk all the time about the need to postpone because of our own leader's sour attitude. What Barak should do is wrap up the deal with the Palestinians without any further delays or tricks and say thank-you very much, President Assad. We'll make a deal with you when you - or whoever comes after you - are really ready for it.