Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Playing for time

After four rounds of indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations, progress appears slow, but the game is still on, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Ahmadinejad and Al-Assad

The fourth round of indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations, held in Istanbul with Turkish mediation, has come to a close. A fifth round will follow -- also in Istanbul and with Turkish mediation -- in mid-August. A Turkish source close to the negotiations has stated that the outcome of the fourth round was positive, yet the two parties have not yet agreed to begin direct negotiations.

Syrian political circles are tight-lipped about what is taking place in the indirect negotiations. Syrian newspapers print brief references only to the negotiations and observers and journalists are being left in the dark. Ahmed Al-Hag Ali, former advisor to the Syrian minister of information, and close to decision-making circles, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "the current level of negotiations is still at the stage of learning positions. There is no justification for drawing any conclusions or developing any visions based on mere fancy. Under such circumstances, we believe that the discussions are a mere process of enquiry that remains within a general and theoretical framework. Israeli prevarications continue to impose themselves on the situation."

The Israeli side is also tight-lipped about the issue, with the exception of some details printed by the Israeli Maariv newspaper last week that were neither supported nor denied by anyone. It appears that both the Syrian and Israeli sides are playing with gained time and are interested only in gaining more. Each party has an interest in continuing negotiations even if they don't bring results, so as to avoid being accused of losing an opportunity for making a historic peace.

The Syrian side wants to continue indirect negotiations even if they are nothing more than that. Syria would find it difficult to halt them because that would contradict the new foreign policy stance it has presented to Europe and the United States -- a positive, moderate one that would help calm and stabilise the region. This policy seeks friendly political relations with Europe and for the (current or future) US administration to normalise relations with Syria and sponsor Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Haitham Menaa, a Syrian activist and spokesperson of the Arab Committee for Human Rights, believes that the Middle East "can no longer bear a state of war without war, which leads to psychological and social instability and disturbs the economy and development." He described Syrian-Israeli discussions to the Weekly as "discussions about a political settlement and not peace negotiations."

Syrian political circles believe that the Israeli government wishes to engage in the negotiations either due to the weakness of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, or because the government and security agencies, and particularly the army, see an opportunity to reach a peace agreement with Syria. They believe that Israel also sees the negotiations as a means of fending off the Iranian threat and the danger of its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. Whatever the reason, both sides appear to be using the negotiations as a means of buying time.

Menaa said: "We are in a transitional stage in all meanings of the word, between the Bush-Cheney stage and what follows it, between the Olmert stage and what follows it, and between two approaches to dealing with the Syrian authorities. The first approach sees Syria as undesirable and the second accepts it in the game of regional nations. This transition has made us believe that Olmert is opening up the Syrian file in order to lessen the pressure on his domestic file. In turn, the Syrian government is lessening its losses in the time gained by waiting for 2009."

Not much has been leaked about the negotiation rounds, but it appears that the two sides are discussing all the issues that will form an agenda for future direct negotiations. They also seem to be trying to confirm that each side is prepared to reach a settlement, offer concessions, and pay the price of an agreement. Likewise, they are seemingly trying to decide on negotiation methods and levels, the degree of expected withdrawal from occupied territories, and security arrangements that would precede that.

Other issues that appear under discussion include a general framework for disarmed areas, the conditions and stages of normalisation, the distribution of water, the exchange of diplomatic representation and future relations.

The Syrian side wants, and might demand, that the US administration sponsors direct negotiations with European assistance. It won't concede such a stipulation, and this was stated by President Bashar Al-Assad during his visit to Paris last month when he said, "direct negotiations might not begin until after the new American president assumes his duties at the beginning of the new year, for the current American administration is not interested in the peace process."

Al-Haj Ali said: "Syria has sufficient desire to move the negotiations from the indirect stage to the direct stage, and it wants the United States to play a major and public role in those negotiations. But none of this has yet taken place, and there is not yet enough of a basis to move the discussions to a direct form. There are no major topics clearly agreed upon, and Israel has not settled on any way of applying the resolutions of the international community and fully withdrawing from the Golan Heights."

Syrian policy views acceptance by the US administration to sponsor negotiations as implicitly signalling the lifting of the American "siege" on Syria and the possible return of the US ambassador to Damascus. More importantly, US sponsorship would guarantee implementation of any agreement made and prevent probable Israeli non-commitment that Israeli governments have grown accustomed to resorting to in most of their agreements with Arab countries.

Among the difficulties facing negotiations is the instability of the Israeli domestic situation, especially since Ehud Olmert will resign in mid-September and it remains unknown who will succeed him as the head of the government or what coalition of parties will participate in a future Israeli government. The Syrian side admits that the resignation of Ehud Olmert "may affect the indirect peace discussions". Yet no one in Syria believes that Israeli domestic changes will stop the negotiations. Indeed, Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli vice- premier, recently stated: "Negotiations will continue even after Olmert leaves."

Mofaz is one of the strongest candidates for succeeding Olmert. "It is necessary to continue peace efforts without prior conditions," Mofaz said, calling for "peace in return for peace", but declaring that he is "against agreeing to return the Golan Heights." Olmert has said that he will "not offer any such agreement to the Syrians." Yet the Syrians hold that full withdrawal from the Golan Heights is something not open to negotiation.

The Syrians are betting that European and American interests will be met by the success of a peace process in the Middle East. This will drive the West to increase pressure on the future Israeli government in order to make its positions more moderate. This bet may encourage Syrian policy to continue with negotiations and strengthen its confidence in reaching an agreement.

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