Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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A house in order

By Ibrahim Nafie

Ibrahim Nafie The announcement on 8 December that Syria and Israel would resume negotiations was no surprise, given the flurry of indirect contacts between the two sides since the Barak government's accession to power. What did come as a surprise, however, were the statements accompanying the announcement. The Israeli prime minister's declaration that outstanding problems had been resolved, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa's declaration that his country and Israel should be able to reach a peace agreement within months -- these suggest that there was more accomplished than merely a formula for resuming negotiations.

As US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, the Israelis and the Syrians have stopped talking about how to negotiate and have actually begun to negotiate. This marks a shift from the previous phase, in which the substance of negotiations temporarily took a back seat to the principles behind setting the process into motion again. Although no one expects the negotiations to be always smooth going, both sides affirmed that "the chances of a breakdown are remote," signaling their resolve to reach an agreement.

The governing formula for the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track is complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for complete peace between Syria and Israel, with security and other arrangements to back it up. True, there came a brief interval in which the Netanyahu government attempted to place Israeli security considerations above the principle of "comprehensive peace" and a full withdrawal from the Golan. Both the Israeli Labour governments and Syria, however, have come to accept the inevitability of both sides of the equation. They also realised that they could reach a settlement in a relatively short time if they could bridge certain gaps in their positions.

These gaps are not insignificant. For one, both sides construe the principle of "full withdrawal" differently. To Syria, it means precisely that. Israel must withdraw to the internationally recognised borders and remove all settlements, military installations and equipment in the process. The Israeli conception is murkier, only having made unofficial offers of a withdrawal to the pre-5 June 1967 lines. Complicating this dimension of the problem are each side's manoeuvres to secure commitments from the other before making concessions. Thus, Syria wants an official Israeli pledge of complete withdrawal from the Golan before pledging itself to a structure for peace; Israel is pressing Syria to clarify how far it will be willing to normalise relations and enter mutual security arrangements before committing itself to full withdrawal.

Other outstanding issues include the nature of the security arrangements following the Israeli withdrawal. In the last official negotiating round in 1996, the two sides reached "an understanding" over the principles underlying security arrangements in the Golan following withdrawal, but the practicalities themselves have not been hammered out. No less formidable issues are the allocation of water resources, the question of the Israeli settlements in the Golan and the problem of southern Lebanon. There also remains considerable disparity over the thorny question of scheduling withdrawal and the implementation of peacetime arrangements.

Despite these differences, for several months both sides have been gearing themselves up for progress. If, on the surface, the current Israeli government did not appear to have budged significantly from its declared positions upon assuming power, there is little doubt that it was laying the groundwork for resumed negotiations. Even before the 8 December announcement, the Israeli government raised the issue of the costs entailed by its withdrawal from the Golan, which were placed by some newspaper reports citing anonymous Israeli officials at $2 billion. In addition, both the Israeli and Syrian governments have been waging systematic campaigns to prepare domestic opinion for eventual concessions in the coming phase. More importantly, the pressures facing both sides may encourage them to seize the opportunities currently available and finally address problems that have been pending for more than eight years.

The resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations is a positive, indeed a historic step forward in the peace process. Egypt's policy has always been that the peace process should include all negotiating tracks, and renewed prospects of a peace agreement between Syria and Israel have also raised hopes for advances on the Lebanese-Israeli track. However, we must take into account Israel's tendency to play the various sides off against each other, to the detriment above all of the Palestinians. If the Israeli government seeks to appease domestic opinion over its concessions to the Syrians and Lebanese by taking a harder line on the Palestinian negotiating track, the absence of Arab coordination over the peace process will have failed to prevent such manoeuvring; it may even have encouraged it actively. This is an important consideration for Egyptian diplomacy to address in the forthcoming phase.

Aware of this Egyptian concern, Albright assured President Mubarak on 9 December that the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track will not adversely effect the Palestinian track, which she stressed remains at the core of all the problems that must be resolved. However well-intentioned these assurances, it is wisest to ensure that the brass tacks of the negotiating process do not furnish openings for Israel to manipulate the various tracks. To this end, therefore, the Arabs must coordinate their policies on all aspects of the peace process. Progress in one area of the negotiating process inevitably affects another, and only with a minimum consensus can we ensure that the realisation of the demands of one Arab country is a step towards the realisation of the aspirations of all the Arab peoples.

In the interests of lending our combined support to the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian negotiators in these difficult times, we should seriously contemplate holding an Arab summit in the near future. It would be the task of that summit to explore a united Arab approach to the peace process, but also to set the Arab house in order, that we may be equipped to meet the rush of challenges new developments are bringing to the region as a whole.

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