Israeli politicians have two beat-up old rabbits in their hat when they want to mock citizens harboring hopes for peace: Secret negotiations with Syria and new possibilities for an agreement with the Palestinians.
Every time they reach a dead end in one track, they pull out of their hat the dove of the other channel. At the end of the performance they stuff the two handkerchiefs back in the hat - until the next show.
Ehud Barak's exploits as prime minister proved wonderfully how the method works. Immediately after his election in May 1999, he took his first trip to the U.S., bringing with him great tidings: He intended to reach a permanent settlement with the Palestinians as soon as possible, and at the same time to arrive at an agreement with the Syrians.
In September of that year, Barak signed the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which was meant to implement the Wye Agreement signed by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. That agreement established an outline for intensive negotiations intended to lead to a framework agreement within five months, which would in turn lead to a permanent settlement within a year.
In short time, the negotiations over the permanent settlement ran into serious problems, but amazingly a new hope appeared: negotiations with the Syrians.
Barak showered praise on Hafez Assad, and at the beginning of January 2000, the prime minister went to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to meet with Farouk Shara, then Syria's foreign minister, in talks held under the auspices of president Bill Clinton.
Those negotiations produced no practical results, even though a draft agreement was drawn up. As the chances for an agreement faded away, Barak reincarnated and then accelerated the talks with the Palestinians, which culminated in his meeting with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. This move also failed, and Barak disappeared from the political center stage.
So when Barak once again calls for talks with the Syrians, it is as if he is declaring that the upcoming Annapolis summit is fated to end with little in the way of practical results.
The loud and clear signal to Damascus, only two months after Israel's air force attacked Syria, can only be interpreted as a sleight of hand - offered as an alternative to the diplomatic process now underway with the Palestinians; or as a distraction for the public from its anticipated failure. And when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert picks up Barak's chorus, it's as if he is giving his official approval to the forecast that nothing will come out of Annapolis.
After all, only a few months ago, Olmert refused calls to give in to Assad's attempts at courtship, dismissing them with the observation that they were only intended to end American pressure on the Syrian leader.
A tendency to zigzag is not the exclusive property of our present prime minister. Since the Madrid Conference in 1991, Israel and Syria have a number of times exchanged messages intended to ascertain the chances of their reaching an agreement that would put at end to the state of war between them. Prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon all did it. Rabin even handed the U.S. government his agreement to a full pullback from the Golan Heights, and both Netanyahu and Barak also agreed to returning the territory.
This potential was never translated into an agreement for various reasons, but the root cause was the failure of the Israeli leadership, in its various incarnations, to achieve internal agreement within Israel on a withdrawal from the Golan.
During the tenures of Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak, the flip-flopping back and forth, from the Palestinian to the Syrian channel, and back again, was obvious and out in the open. It was based, on the hand, on serious political considerations - Rabin thought that it was impossible to offer the public two peace plans at the same time; and in the case of Netanyahu and Barak, it stemmed from public relations considerations.
The present attempt to tango with Assad, Jr., if it is serious at all, is also doomed to fail.
Either it is a tactic addressed to the Palestinian Authority, whose purpose is to improve Israel's bargaining position; or it is a public relations gambit meant to distract the Israeli public. Or perhaps it is actually a trial balloon whose address is Assad himself, in which case it is likely to be popped by the winds blowing from America.
In any case, Olmert is not a stronger leader than his predecessors were, in his supposed readiness to negotiate over the future of the Golan. This fact should be our starting point as we attempt to draw conclusions about the seriousness of reports on a new dawn on the Israeli-Syrian horizon.
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