By Khaled Diab
A return to the negotiating table is encouraging, but Syria will have to make a daring gesture to win Israeli public sympathy.
The quest for peace in the Middle East is a fragile and delicate affair. Even at the most promising moments, when it seems finally within grasp, it can so easily slip away. Not long after the news of the latest round of serious (but indirect) talks between Syria and Israel was made public, we learn that the Israeli government is on the verge of collapse.
But rather than despair at the latest set back, Syria should redouble its efforts to keep the peace talks afloat. In fact, with a little daring, the forthcoming elections could prove to be a golden opportunity to put Syria's case for peace directly to the Israeli electorate.
The blueprint of a durable and workable deal appear to have been hammered out by negotiators, but there is currently little mutual trust for it to see the light of day, leaving plenty of room for sceptics and extremists to undermine and derail it.
What Syria needs to do is to raise the peace ante with a spectacular confidence-building gesture. This could come in the form of an offer of direct, top-level talks with Israel's next prime minister, if he or she sticks to the principle of returning the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. This could help nudge a peace deal with Syria to the top of the election campaign, win the trust of the electorates and call the bluff of those using Syria's rejections of direct talks as a sign of ill intent.
So far, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has ruled out direct talks until after the Israeli elections, but there's no reason why he can't already make a clear offer now to the future leader. He told reporters in New Delhi in June that direct talks were “not like drinking tea… The meeting between me and the Israeli prime minister will be meaningless without technocrats, who are the experts, laying the foundation.”
Undoubtedly, the role of experts is important for laying the technical foundations for peace, but this ignores the potential goodwill that can be built with the simple act of sharing a cuppa – or, in other words, setting down the essential psychological keystone that must underpin a settlement. It is public figures and not anonymous technocrats who can lay the appropriate emotional groundwork and create the kind of mindset conducive to the difficult task ahead of squaring the political circle.
The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat understood the importance of this psychological threshold. Although Israeli public opinion was initially against returning the Sinai, he won enough Israeli public adoration to pave the way to peace with his spectacular visit to Israel. There are murmurs in Israel that Syria could use some of that Sadat seduction.
Personally, I do not expect Bashar al-Assad, a reserved and private man who lacks the flamboyance and passion for risk-taking of the former Egyptian president, to address the Knesset, but some strategically targeted flesh pressing and shared smiles with Israel's next leader could truly start a long overdue thaw in relations. And it's not like it is something entirely new to him: during the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Assad shook hands with the then Israeli President Moshe Katsav.
Of course, Sadat is widely seen in Syria as a traitor – or, at the very least, a let down – to the Arab cause. Although he urged them to join him in his quest for a settlement, at a certain level, he did betray the frontline states by not coordinating his position with them and with his cavalier attitude towards his Arab allies. And this, along with memories of his father's icy reaction to Sadat's visit, might put Assad off taking such a high-profile step.
Nevertheless, Sadat showed foresight and daring by bowing to the inevitable and expressing publicly what most Arab leaders admitted in private: that an accommodation with Israel was the only game in town. Even Gamal Abdel-Nasser – who grew to become the embodiment of the pan-Arabist ideal and to whom Syria selflessly surrendered its sovereignty in an attempt to fulfil its dream of Arab unity – believed that peace with Israel was the only way forward, but he never articulated it in public because he feared the reaction of the “Arab Street”.
Syria is also constrained by its declared principles. “Any direct negotiations will not take place until after there is a clear resolution of the land in return for peace issue and Israel's commitment and clear stand on the mechanisms,” a high level Syrian source said. The source also argued that this would be tantamount to recognising Israel, which Syria is not prepared to do before a peace deal has been reached.
But Syria needs to discard this fossilised and outdated notion, as even negotiating through a medium is a tacit form of recognition, so why not come out of the closet about it. Syria's refusal to recognise Israel makes no practical difference to either country. In contrast, a formal recognition would be a tiny bureaucratic step, but a massive and positive psychological leap for both sides, since it would put to rest persistent rumours that the Arabs do not accept Israel's right to exist and prepare Syria for eventual political and economic ties once the conflict is fully resolved.
I understand that the Syrians are acting on principle and feel they should not recognise Israel until it recognises an independent Palestine, but peace between Syria and Israel could serve the Palestinian cause, by building trust and giving Israel one less justification for continuing its occupation.
At the very least, it can't make things worse, since there is very little a weak and isolated Syria can do to serve the Palestinian cause. But as a stronger and more integrated member of the international community, it can exercise far more diplomatic clout in the efforts to assist the long-suffering Palestinians. Besides, after six decades of futile Arab help that has often done more harm than good, perhaps the Palestinians are best left to manage their own cause.
Domestically, peace will bring Syria in from the cold and give it a broader circle of friends than only Iran, an alliance that has hurt Syria's relationship with other Arab countries, as well as with the west. In addition, it will free Syria up to pursue its economic development and, by removing the fears and excuses of the conflict with Israel, could put the country back on the path to the democracy that was shattered in the wake of the 1948 defeat.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 15 August 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest