Syrian President Bashar Assad is interested in renewing the negotiations with Israel on getting back the Golan Heights in return for peace. Assad initiated an indirect dialogue with Israel, until recently through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the minute Erdogan fell out with Israel, through Croatian President Stjepan Mesic.
Last week Mesic met with Assad and separately with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an effort to offer his services as mediator and host.
Netanyahu in theory accepted the proposal but in practice turned it down by insisting that the negotiations be direct and without preconditions (translation: without an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines and without reverting to the point when talks stopped under prime minister Ehud Olmert). So Netanyahu set preconditions under the guise of opposing the setting of preconditions.
The Israeli approach to relations with Syria needs to be managed from the end to the start, and the end is a vision of regional peace between Israel and its neighbors. In parallel to efforts to reach a permanent settlement with the Palestinians and without hurting their interests, Israel must seek peace with Syria in the context of Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967: full and secure peace in return for complete withdrawal. Those who do not want such a deal will seek to undermine it using arguments of procedure.
Assad wants to move closer to the bridge of indirect talks, and to do so in two stages. The mediator during the first stage, a non-American, may be a Turk, Croat, Frenchman or someone else; this person would identify the points of dispute and seek to remove them. Only as the two sides approach the bridge would an American mediator be expected to bring the talks under his aegis and prepare a tripartite summit. But the Obama administration should not be idle before this stage. U.S. special envoy George Mitchell and his deputy for Syria and Lebanon, Fred Hof, are meeting with politicians and experts in the region.
What Syria wants to achieve through negotiations is obvious: returns from Israel, and no less important, from Washington. What Israel wants is also clear: in addition to regional peace, the weakening of the Arab opposition front that is being assisted by Iran and which includes Hezbollah and Hamas. Netanyahu thinks Iran is behind nearly everything, but is hesitant to exercise the leadership required by this conclusion.
In the past, Netanyahu spoke indirectly with Hafez Assad, the late father of the current leader in Damascus, through U.S. businessman Ron Lauder. The contacts failed and there is some dispute over what happened. There is no dispute, however, that seeking peace with Syria, through talks between chiefs of staff and shuttle diplomacy by secretaries of state, is a key element in Yitzhak Rabin's diplomatic legacy, which Netanyahu's defense minister, Ehud Barak, says should be seen through. Rabin's memory should extend beyond flowery speeches, eulogies and arguing over the Oslo process. Energized efforts toward peace with Syria would perpetuate the Rabin legacy.
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