What Do Assad and Olmert Want?

Since coming to power, Bashar Assad has mostly kept quiet on his attitude toward the State of Israel, and in Jerusalem they reached the conclusion that there is no peace partner in Damascus.

Since coming to power, Bashar Assad has mostly kept quiet on his attitude toward the State of Israel, and in Jerusalem they reached the conclusion that there is no peace partner in Damascus. Following the second Lebanon war, the Syrian president began making bellicose statements, and once more in Israel they became convinced there is no one to talk to in Syria. In recent weeks, Assad has been signaling that he is willing to reach an agreement with Israel - and the intelligence heads in Tel Aviv are trying to figure out where he may be headed with this.

The head of the Mossad has ruled that the hints of reconciliation being disseminated by Assad are merely a ploy intended to save him from the strain he is under because of the way the United States sees him. On the other hand, the head of Military Intelligence is of the opinion that Assad wants to reach an agreement. In his statements, Ehud Olmert appears to accept the opinion of the Mossad's Meir Dagan, reinforcing the dominant view in Israel that Syria is not a likely partner for reconciliation.

Just as the expert analysts in Israel are unable to know fully Assad's thinking, Assad is unable to interpret the bent of Olmert's soul. If in Israel, a democratic state, open and given to information leaks, the prime minister says one day that he intends to pull out from most of the West Bank, and a month later declares that this plan has been shelved, how can the Syrian neighbor tell what Israel's intentions really are? If last week Olmert rejected the proposed renewal of negotiations with Syria, but two day ago spoke of the idea in a more positive light, how can the man in Damascus understand what the intentions of the man in Jerusalem really are?

Caught in such a psychological and intellectual bind, the two heads of state will never achieve the understanding that the opponent intends to make peace. There have been precedents: Hafez Assad missed an opportunity to reach a historic agreement with Israel during the visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977, which resulted in peace with Egypt and an Israeli withdrawal from all of Sinai. As prime minister, Ehud Barak did not take advantage of circumstances to achieve positive results in negotiations he held with Assad's representatives in Shepherdstown in early 2000.

The lack of certainty surrounding the intentions of the two leaders dictates their behavior toward each other. Doubt feeds the inclination to ignore changes in the stance of the other side and to adopt pessimistic interpretations, attributing malicious intent to the other. This happens in the way Syria reads the situation in democratic and open Israel, and even more so, in the way that Israel interprets the situation in Syria, which is ruled by a single leader and where decision making is relatively hidden from public view.

The intellectual inertia is reinforced by the natural inclination of people to avoid decision making, opt for routine and not to take chances in bold moves. This particularly holds true for politicians whose main goal is to retain power. The Syrian ruler is affected by complex regional exigencies - domestically, in his relations with Iran, the Arab world and the international community. Israel's prime minister also operates within a labyrinth of internal and external pressures. We can assume that both leaders are deliberating in which direction to take their countries, and this is one of the reasons for the fog surrounding them.

There is another way of approaching this, which is greatly dependent on the extent of Olmert's leadership, his determination and ability to make decisions. If he would place making peace with Syria at the top of his agenda, he would probably achieve it. After all, the fate of the peace feelers that the Syrian leader is extending are in Olmert's hands: if he decides to adopt the interpretation of the head of Military Intelligence, which attributes to Assad a genuine desire for peace, he will initiate a process that will have a great many chances to reach this goal. If he opts for the assessment of the head of the Mossad, his response to the Syrian signals will be such that he will foil the chances of translating them into an agreement. The decision on whether there will be peace with Syria depends on Olmert's decision far more than on interpreting Assad's intentions.