Israeli-Syrian negotiations are facing two sets of difficulties. The issues that comprise the first set are fairly well-known to the public; the second set is less well-known. And no change in the identity of the person heading Israel's government - or in the composition of the government as a whole - will change these basic facts.
The first set of difficulties relates to issues that are supposed to be discussed in the negotiations. The Syrians are willing to discuss one issue only - restoring the Golan Heights to their control. Israel, however, has a broader agenda. From Israel's standpoint, it is impossible to restrict the negotiations to the Golan, because its strategic calculations are influenced by other aspects of Syrian policy. These aspects include Syria's support for Hezbollah and Hamas, the presence of radical Palestinian organizations in Syria's capital, Syria's status in Lebanon, and finally, Syria's relationship with Iran.
Even someone not well-versed in the agenda of the indirect talks now being conducted via Ankara can safely assume that it is not easy to bridge these differences. It seems doubtful that Syria would be willing to discuss all these issues with Israel; on the other hand, it is hard to imagine any Israeli government being willing to make significant concessions to Syria on the territorial issue without Syria's overall policy toward Israel - including its active support for radical anti-Israel organizations and its relations with Iran - undergoing a substantial change.
But beyond the agenda problem is another issue, of which Israelis often tend to make light. Periodically, Israelis can be heard saying that the difference between the Israeli and Syrian positions on the territorial issue boils down to "a few kilometers." That is admittedly true, but it misses the point.
The most moderate Israeli position consists of a willingness - in exchange for appropriate security arrangements - to consider an Israeli withdrawal to the international border, in line with the model of its peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. The Syrian stance, in contrast, demands a return to the June 4, 1967 lines. As some people will remember, Syria conquered a few small enclaves of Israeli territory during the War of Independence, and the 1949 armistice agreements reflected this reality. This difference is not just a matter of a few kilometers - important though those kilometers are, since they include Hamat Gader and Syrian access to the northeastern shore of Lake Kinneret. For Syria, this is a far more substantive issue.
One of the characteristics of Syrian ideology and policy is nonrecognition of the legitimacy of arrangements and borders that were laid down in the Middle East after World War I. In the Baath Party's view, these were imperialist and colonialist decisions. Therefore, Syria never recognized Lebanon's independence and does not maintain diplomatic relations with it. Syria and Lebanon have never exchanged ambassadors (and in my opinion, they will not open embassies in each other's capital even now, although Syria recently gave formal consent to establishing relations). For this reason, Syria is not willing to demarcate its border with Lebanon, and for this reason, it has to this day refused to formally confirm to the United Nations that the Shaba Farms are located in Lebanese rather than Syrian territory - because that would mean admitting that Lebanon is a separate state.
This is also why Syria is insisting on the "June 4 lines": It is not just a territorial issue. Israel's willingness to withdraw to the international border is based on its view that the Mandatory border between Syria and the Land of Israel was legitimate. But for Syria, this is an imperialist border and completely illegitimate. This is not a fine distinction of international law, but a cornerstone of Syria's historical narrative.
It may be possible to overcome these two sets of difficulties. But this possibility depends on Syria's willingness both to significantly expand the range of issues it deems legitimate for discussion in the bilateral negotiations, and to deviate from a fundamental principle of its core ideological worldview. Clearly, these are not marginal issues, and anyone who presents them as such to the public is mistaken and misleading - whether wittingly or unwittingly.
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