Bringing Israel, Syria Back to Negotiating Table

By drafting separate 'letters of assurance,' Washington hopes to assuage the two antagonists' individual concerns

In the aftermath of Israel's redeployment in Hebron, United States attention has shifted to the Syrian track.

US diplomats are actively engaged in restarting negotiations between Syria and Israel that were suspended by Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres almost a year ago.

The outlines of the Syrian-Israeli dispute over resuming the talks were established in July 1996, after the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister. Syrian President Hafez al Assad informed US negotiator Dennis Ross that Syria was prepared to resume discussions on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of "land for peace," as well as on the "assumption" that Mr. Netanyahu would resume talks where they left off in February 1996. Israel informed Washington it would resume talks on the basis of 242 and 338 only.

The road map the US is now following owes much to the experience of former Secretary of State James Baker. In the aftermath of the Gulf war, Mr. Baker won grudging approval from Israeli and Syrian leaders for the Madrid Conference. A "letter of invitation" to the Madrid gathering was given to Mr. Assad and Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister at the time, by Washington and Moscow. Baker also provided Israel and Syria (as well as the Palestinians and Lebanese) with different "letters of assurance," each tailored to assuage the fears of the individual recipients.

Today the Clinton administration, anxious to stabilize relations between Israel and Syria, is taking this page from Baker's book. Washington is drafting separate letters of assurance to each party - a diplomatic device aimed at bridging the seemingly irreconcilable public positions of Syria and Israel and reengaging the two across a negotiating table.

Bridge the gap

This feat isn't as difficult as it might appear. Washington must bridge the gap between the "letter of invitation" to Madrid, which proposed Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for talks, and the "letter of assurance" to Syria, which committed Washington to the principle of "land for peace" on the Golan Heights.

Each party has reason to resume discussions. The US wants to stabilize a front that recently has threatened to explode into military confrontation. The Netanyahu government wants to reestablish the third "Syrian" point in a "triangular diplomacy" between itself and the Palestinians as a way to deflect Palestinian demands as it faces difficult decisions about "further redeployment" in the West Bank. Syria views a renewed dialogue as a means of keeping Syria safe from an Israeli attack. The multinational Monitoring Committee, established after Israel's assault on Lebanon last April, serves a similar, though more limited, purpose.

According to a well-informed source, the US is working on the assumption that both Syria and Israel can agree to return to the table on the basis of an agreement not to address the issue of Israel's commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967, border - a commitment Syria insists was made by the previous Israeli government.

Victory for both

Each party will then be able to claim victory on this most sensitive issue. Negotiations can center on what Yitzhak Rabin termed the three other "legs of the table" supporting a Syrian-Israeli peace: security arrangements, normalization, and a timetable for withdrawal.

The US has already assuaged Israeli concerns by explaining that the US doesn't believe the current Israeli government is committed to the negotiating positions taken by the Rabin-Peres government in the course of negotiations over the last four years.

Top Syrian officials involved in the negotiations tell Assad the US supports Syria's demand for a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, border as the new international border and that Washington will work to that end in negotiations.

These two elements of US policy may be confusing, but they are not contradictory, particularly if the most immediate aim is to find a diplomatic device to enable the resumption of talks. The US has long supported the principle of land for peace outlined in the letter of assurance to the Syrians, and many people have believed that Assad would never have agreed to go to Madrid in the first place without a commitment from Washington to work for total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

On the other hand, the US has merely stated to Netanyahu an opinion about the status of negotiations under the previous Israeli government. As important as Syria believes the progress made in these negotiations was, they were pieces of a puzzle with no value until all of the pieces were in place.

Netanyahu insists he intends to create a new puzzle, whose outlines remain unclear. But Washington and Damascus think Netanyahu is a less-adept negotiator than his immediate predecessors. Just as he discovered his inability to make substantial changes in the terms governing Israel's redeployment from Hebron, so too will he find he can't stray far from the path to Damascus sketched by Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres.

* Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

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