JERUSALEM — What does Syrian President Hafez al-Assad really want?
According to Dore Gold, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief foreign policy adviser, it isn't what many people assume the Arab leader most wants - the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
Rather, in an article published in the Washington-based Moment magazine a month before Mr. Netanyahu's May 29 election win, Dr. Gold argued that Mr. Assad's true priority is control of Lebanon, where some 35,000 Syrian troops have been stationed since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1989.
This assumption underlies and explains the diplomatic commotion in the Middle East in recent days. Netanyahu has proposed to Assad - who is seen as having near-total control over Lebanon - that Israel and Syria discuss a "Lebanon First" option. Under this proposal, Israel would pull its troops out of what it calls its "zone of control" in southern Lebanon in exchange for assurance of security along the Lebanese-Israeli border. But implicit in Netanyahu's offer is that Assad would have to, for now, give up his designs on most of the Golan Heights.
Getting control of Lebanon while giving up the Golan is a trade off that, according to Gold, Syria might be willing to make. But Lebanon and the Golan have long been considered a package deal, so Israel's mere suggestion of delinking the two - or at least breaking talks on them into stages - has set off a new round of discussions among Arab leaders and in the US.
And the problem is that Damascus may not buy it.
Indeed analysts call the Lebanon First suggestion a "nonstarter." And the offer has thus far been rejected by both Assad and Lebanese President Elias Hrawi. On Tuesday, an official Syrian daily newspaper, Tishrin, said the offer "had nothing to do with peace."
But by Gold's theory, Syria just might have to swallow the reality of a new, conservative government in Jerusalem if it wants to see any progress; perhaps Assad, who's been in power since 1971, would be willing to forgo most of the Golan in favor of Lebanon and all its economic and territorial benefits.
The message from Israel is this: The Jewish state still wants a peace deal, but unlike previous Israeli leaders, Netanyahu will not consider a Golan withdrawal.
"There has been an assumption that it must be a package deal," says Mark Heller, a leading political scientist at Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center, Gold's own think tank. "And this government's assumption is that there can't be a package deal because they're not interested in negotiating on the Golan Heights."
But Assad has not proved flexible on Golan discussions in the past and may have little interest in the fact that Netanyahu faces strong domestic opposition to giving up the Golan. Most Israelis are against giving it up because they don't see Assad as a reliable peace partner.
Syria experts in Israel also note that keeping the Golan, which was won with relatively heavy casualties, is part of the Israeli psyche. Bumper stickers proclaiming "The people are with the Golan" have appeared ever since late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin suggested the idea of concession.
Syria, which still feels wronged by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that carved Lebanon out of Syria, may see Lebanon as its Manifest Destiny. Besides, many Syrians now earn their living in Lebanon.
But that doesn't mean Assad will forget the Golan. Israeli opposition parties say Netanyahu is foolish to suggest Syria would take Lebanon in lieu of the Golan - Assad wants both and doesn't need Israeli acknowledgment to control Lebanon.
Moreover, a permanent Syrian troop presence would clash with the long-standing US policy, reiterated by Middle East envoy Dennis Ross last week, of getting all foreign troops to withdraw from Lebanon.
Skeptics also say Lebanon First could be a publicity-minded offer that allows Netanyahu to look conciliatory - and to claim he hasn't abandoned the land-for-peace formula, which the previous Labor-led government used to revive the peace process. Lebanon First may aim to allow Israel to "say that we offered to pull out of Lebanon," says the Jaffe Center's Dr. Heller, despite knowing that there is only a "remote possibility that it might work out."