Text size

One of the regular conditions was missing from Syrian President Bashar Assad's comments yesterday: the caveat that any negotiations with Israel must pick up where they left off. Israel has always seen this statement as an obstacle set up by Syria, since it aims to prevent talks from expanding or from opening the door to new Israeli demands.

From Assad's perspective, the reference to a "deposit" - the same message that Yitzhak Rabin conveyed to Warren Christopher in 1994, when he apparently committed to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace - served as a link in the chain that granted legitimacy to any possible negotiation with Israel. The condition, in Syrian eyes, made continued negotiations legitimate not just for Assad the father, but also for Assad the son. It means that talks with Israel are not a new invention of a young president, but an old diplomatic tradition.

But Bashar Assad suggested a new formula yesterday, one that was free of this customary condition. Instead of calling for a return to the stopping point, he demanded that the purview of negotiations be set with him. He wants an Israeli commitment to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, written in a document or conveyed in a way that won't give rise to doubts, in exchange for negotiations. It appears that this is once more a precondition without which talks cannot begin, but in effect Assad is suggesting a formula similar to the one included in the road map, which suggests a clear and defined diplomatic objective in exchange for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The kind of Israeli declaration Assad is demanding means, for Assad, recognition of the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory rather than Israeli territory. In exchange for such a declaration - which does not entail actual withdrawal - there would be the beginning of a political process which, at least at this stage, aims to calm the atmosphere of war.

The other condition that Assad refrained from mentioning was his demand that the United States get involved in the talks. This condition, which was raised recently by Syrian spokesmen, was used by Israel as evidence that all Assad wants is to get Washington off his back, and not to make progress on the diplomatic front. With appropriate caution, Assad said the next phase of negotiations would require the involvement of an impartial mediator, without going into details.

With the neutralization of the first condition and the fact that Assad did not explicitly mention Washington as an essential mediator, it appears that the work of the various mediators, especially the Turks, have born fruit, in the form of public diplomacy that relies on new language.