Israel and Syria Foot-Dragging on Peace

Dennis Ross, the US Middle East peace talks coordinator, is currently evaluating the status of Syrian-Israeli peace talks. This is a noble effort because peace between these two states is critical to long-term stability. But while Mr. Ross's efforts are noble, they run against an interesting reality. Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are cooperating most indirectly in order to avoid, for strategic and domestic reasons, making any serious concessions for peace.

Mr. Assad wants the strategic Golan Heights back, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israelis are split on such a concession. When Prime Minister Shimon Peres was in power, approximately 46 percent supported full withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace; 43 percent opposed it. Mr. Netanyahu's recent strong rhetoric has only illuminated the dangers for Israel of concessions to Syria and has increased public opposition to withdrawal.

Even under the more dovish Peres, Israelis demanded early-warning capability and the ability to check Syrian troops before they threaten Israel's territory, if it withdrew from the Golan. Assad, who is still shooting for a peace deal at least as good as Egypt's Anwar Sadat got, equivocated on the Golan deal even when Peres wanted to hand the Golan over with minimal strings attached.

Under Peres, Israel's formula on the Golan was that the "depth of its withdrawal would equal the depth of normalization with Syria." In order to feel secure with peace, Israelis have sought real relations - trade, tourism, and diplomatic access. Without establishing a "psychology of peace," Israeli negotiators felt that there could be no agreement with Syria.

Netanyahu views this formula as a starting point, while Syria didn't even view it as a basis for negotiating an endgame to the peace talks with Peres. Syrians do not have such a touchy-feely perspective on peace. While even elements of the Egyptian press remain anti-Semitic, Syrian attacks on Israel and Netanyahu - who has been compared to Hitler in the Syrian press - have gone beyond the pale. Syria has no interest in normalization at this point without a broader agreement on the Golan Heights. A central dilemma faced by both Netanyahu and Assad is that the more concessions they make for peace, the less domestic leverage they are likely to have.

Assad faces obstacles at home. For a people nursed on anti-Zionism, peace with Israel is a difficult concept. While Assad brutally dominates Syria, unlike a Western leader, he also has major constituencies. His foot-dragging on demilitarizing the Golan in August 1995, which stalled peace talks and angered Israeli doves, was related to rumblings in his own military. With Netanyahu in power, Assad need not worry about having to consider such possibly risky concessions.

Since he is an Alawite Muslim, a sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims, Assad's legitimacy depends on critical bases of support such as the elite officer corps. He needs to keep them happy. Assad fears that peace will increase the power of certain groups in Syria. The economic sector, for instance, is likely to be the engine of peace as history attests. Yet, Assad is wary about economic groups obtaining greater autonomy after peace, possibly increasing their political power.

Netanyahu must also consider his home front. Even if he wanted to, Netanyahu could not go as far as Assad wants without splintering his own party. Both sides are still meeting secretly, arranging for prisoner and body swaps, and discussing a Netanyahu proposal that calls on Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon if Syria ensures the security of Israel's northern border.

For now, however, Assad and Netanyahu are in a dance - a dance not chiefly for peace, but rather one to see who can appear to be pursuing peace without actually doing so. They can both benefit from each other's foot-dragging, all the while holding onto the more-trusted but suboptimal status quo.

Steve A. Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va..

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