Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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Barriers to the breakthrough

By Gamil Mattar *

Gamil Mattar Only days before the end of the year, what the western media describes as a "breakthrough" has occurred on the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process. That negotiating track had been stalled for four years. Some argued that it was only right for it to come to a halt as it did. I can understand their point of view, if I do not necessarily subscribe to it.

At the time, US decision-making circles concerned with a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict were divided into two camps. The first advocated pushing forward the Syrian track. Progress towards a settlement with Syria, it was argued, would eventually subdue the situation in southern Lebanon, where the tension had subjected Israeli prime ministers to all manner of extortion from the Israeli right and sectors of the military establishment. These pressures, in turn, reduced their flexibility in dealing with their other Arab adversaries, and such flexibility was essential to the image the Israeli negotiators presented to regional public opinion, certain Arab governments and western public opinion.

Secondly, this camp thought that with Syria and Lebanon out of the way, the Palestinian Authority would be under greater pressure to see negotiations through to a rapid conclusion, giving the Israeli negotiators an even more powerful upper hand in hammering out the final status accord. Thirdly, at the time (shortly before Rabin's assassination), this segment of opinion believed Israeli society was being torn apart by sharp political and social rifts, and feared that the persistence of such tensions would be detrimental to Israeli interests in the peace process and perhaps jeopardise Israeli peace and security. Dire prognoses from Israel underscored intense divisions in Israeli society, such as the polarisation between the religious right and secular left or between rich and poor. Indeed, it appeared that Israeli identity itself -- the very character of the Israeli state -- was being brought into question.

From the 19th century to the early 1990s, Zionism was essentially a secularist movement that interwove the two fundamental concepts of Jewish identity and Israeli nationality. While religious elements could be easily absorbed beneath the nationalist umbrella, they were never in a position to affect the basic character of the state or of the international Zionist movement. At the beginning of this decade, as elsewhere in the world, religion began to gain a higher status, giving rise in Israel to profound discrepancies between religious belief and the dominant secularist ideology of the state.

The camp that favoured giving the Syrian track urgent priority also feared that fate would intervene to create a void in the Syrian leadership, which could have brought the situation back to the pre-Madrid period and, at best, would have delayed progress for several years until a new leadership could establish itself solidly enough to resume negotiations.

In a sense, this camp's predictions bore themselves out, although not as expected. Rabin's assassination brought negotiations with Syria to a halt. Moreover, as the result of Peres's legendary incompetence, the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian tracks became ever more riddled with complications. It was perhaps almost inevitable that the Israeli government would return to a hard line before rallying once again behind a resumption of the stalled talks.

The other camp concerned with the Middle East settlement believed that it would be more beneficial to proceed slowly, or perhaps not at all, on the Syrian track. This group had a more pessimistic reading of realities in the area, which is perhaps why its views were more influential. It was increasingly the impression in Washington and western European capitals that Syrian and Lebanese societies, if for different reasons, were on a course towards certain deterioration. According to certain analysts, who continue to influence the US administration's Middle East policies, the Syrian government's refusal to open up economically, politically and technologically has placed enormous strains on standards of living, rendering the public mood more inclined to accept concessions that could never have been mooted in the past. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, spiraling government expenditures have generated such economic instability as to discourage investment and threaten economic activity as a whole, generating a climate aggravated by Israel's perpetual threat to destroy the Lebanese infrastructure. According to these analysts, the situation in Lebanon would compel Syria to offer even greater concessions, even given the continued escalation of Lebanese resistance activities.

If both camps agreed that fate was an operative factor, their predictions differed. While the camp that advocated speeding up the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track was in favour of anticipating fate, the second camp felt that the increased prospect of a void in the Syrian leadership would force the current leadership to soften its position. According to informed American observers, the decision to resume negotiations on the Syrian track was taken only a few months ago. Moreover, the recent announcement to this effect was preceded by intensive high-level contacts in which the US administration used tactics of intimidation and flattery unprecedented in this arena.

The second camp, further, believed that the Syrians themselves had no desire to rush the Syrian-Lebanese track. At that juncture, the Lebanese resistance and the Palestinian Islamic resistance were proving highly effective in debilitating the enemy. On the other hand, not only did the Americans refrain from encouraging the Syrians to resume negotiations, even indirectly; rather, they were working assiduously to isolate Syria. This was the period in which pressures upon Syria mounted. Turkey in particular seemed on the verge of declaring war. At the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit, when the US reaffirmed its determination to protect Israel at all costs, and encouraged Turkey to step up mobilisation, Syria's predicament began to generate tension in its relations with other Arab countries. Its regional standing seemed in the balance.

The scenario envisaged by the second camp may have played itself out, but this does not mean that the Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the negotiating process cannot break down again. There are no guarantees that negotiations will achieve their intended aims -- primarily, agreements between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. On the other hand, nothing proves that Israel and Syria seek to elude such an outcome. There is no need to repeat the details of rumors -- unconfirmed as of yet -- that certain negotiating points have already been settled via British intermediaries or over the phone, or that at least some progress has been made towards resolving pending issues. What is important here is that if negotiations proceed relatively smoothly for four to six months, leading to a settlement satisfactory to both the Israelis -- at a point where they can claim victory -- and to the Syrians and Lebanese -- both staggering under pressures -- the greatest credit will be due to the camp of US policy-makers who advocated a softly-softly approach to Syria.

The past few months hold many secrets. Among these is the role played by the Syrian foreign minister, upon whose health the strains of negotiations have taken such a toll as to worry the Syrian leadership, as well as the negotiating team in Washington and the office of the Israeli prime minister. Nor should it escape our attention that Syria has accepted a temporary cooling in its relations with other Arab countries, a tactic which has been used successfully by other Arab parties engaged in secret talks with Israel preparatory to breakthroughs in the negotiating process. In all events, Syria has countered the vicious onslaught of Israeli, Turkish and US pressures successfully; it has manoeuvred brilliantly to optimise its negotiating position.


* The writer is the director of Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.
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