Arbitration Now

When reports of the current Israel-Syria talks are emptied of spin, nudges and Janus-faced pronouncements, what emerges is a dead-end.

The result of all the discussions, contacts, messages and gossip between Israel and Syria until now has been, and remains, naught. Six Israeli prime ministers have come and gone since the 1991 Madrid Conference that opened the Syrian channel for the first time. Both concessionists - Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert - and refuseniks - Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon - eventually reached the same dead-end. Despite having held talks on withdrawing from the Golan, Netanyahu remains a refusenik because his negotiations with Hafez Assad were secret, exposed only after he had left office.

Israel still controls the Golan Heights, and both sides conscientiously adhere to the separation of forces agreement reached in 1974, even while fighting each other on other fronts. When reports of the current bilateral talks are emptied of spin, nudges and Janus-faced pronouncements, what emerges is that very same dead-end.

Israel refuses to withdraw from the Kinneret shore, and Syria refuses a public meeting between the two countries' leaders. Each side hints that if the other would just come nearer to it, a peace deal would be in the pocket, but both Israelis and Syria recoil at the thought of being the one to take the first step.

Leaders in both Jerusalem and Damascus prefer to continue the state of war to giving the appearance of making compromises that hurt national honor. Each side fears that if it concedes anything, the other will cheat it. Even leaders who preached about reaching a deal with Syria as an Israeli interest, like Olmert does now, were not able to free themselves of that psychological trap.

From Israel's perspective, the stubborn hold on the narrow strip along the Kinneret shore is due to symbolic, rather than security reasons, as it is impossible to protect an area a few dozen to a hundred meters wide by force. Still, Israel claims Syria is trying to make permanent its hold on an area never under its sovereignty, which it took control of before the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel sees only the 1923 international border between British and French mandates, then ruling in Palestine and Syria respectively, as binding.

According to the Israeli approach, Syria has no right to territories it conquered west of the international border, and certainly not the northeast shore of the Kinneret, which should fall under Israeli sovereignty.

Syrian jurists raise the opposite argument, basing their opinions on UN decisions that have served as the basis for the peace process and do not refer to historical borders, but only to the prevailing status before the Six-Day War. Return what you have taken, say the Syrians.

Who is right? Which precedent is more binding: an international border recognized between powers of the past, or a Security Council resolution? The path out of this cul-de-sac leads to international arbitration to decide where exactly the border should lie. Until now, each side has dug into its trenches, and the option of referring the issue to a third party has not been seriously considered. Because of the political price involved in compromises, it is difficult to believe either side will succeed in convincing the other.

Now is the time to consider a new path. Instead of wasting time in futile polemics with Damascus, Israel can recommend arbitration. The talks would last a few years, during which progress on other matters involved in a peace deal could be made and Syrian credibility tested.

Israel would then be portrayed as a country respecting international rule of law and win valuable public relations points. Syria's refusal based on the "holding our ground" rationale would present its president, Bashar Assad, as a refusenik of peace and Israel as righteous among the nations.

International arbitration has a successful precedent in the Israel-Egypt peace process, in which the two sides transferred the issue of Taba to review. Unlike the usual outcome today, the matter was resolved in Israel's favor. In return for giving up the small town on the Gulf of Aqaba, which was never Israel's, it received territories in the central Negev and changes to the maritime border near Eilat. And disputes over the exact border route did not disrupt the deal being signed or carried out.

After 17 years of exploratory talks, the time has come to take a different approach to the Syria track and look for an exit from the territorial dispute. The chances for success are dependent on the political will of both sides to reach an agreement.