News Analysis: Shrewd Move by Syrian Leader Poses Tough Dilemma for Shamir Government

Syria’s reportedly positive response to President Bush’s proposals for convening a Middle East peace conference has presented the Israeli government with a tough choice.

Either it can back down on its opposition to a United Nations role in the conference, a move Israeli hard-liners fear would set a dangerous precedent, or it can stand its ground and risk being blamed for the collapse of the peace process.

Officially, Jerusalem has cautiously welcomed the reportedly forthcoming letter that Syrian President Hafez Assad sent Bush last weekend.

A statement issued Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office said that if “the Syrian response makes possible the opening of direct, unmediated negotiations, we will view it favorably, because what Israel has always wanted was to sit with the Arab states without preconditions.”

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir cannot but have been chagrined to hear Assad’s response extolled this week by Bush and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.

In London, the U.S. president on Monday called the Assad letter a “breakthrough,” and Baker said that it contains “the real possibility of bringing about, I think, direct face-to-face bilateral negotiations between Israel and Syria.”

Assad’s response to Bush’s June 1 request to Middle East leaders for “flexibility” may have been six weeks late in coming, but it appears to have been just what the Bush administration was looking for.

JORDANIAN POSITION UNCLEAR

Shamir’s reply to the same request, though much more prompt, was widely interpreted as a polite refusal to accept Bush’s proposals for surmounting the procedural obstacles to convening a peace conference.

It is likely that the Israeli prime minister figured his neighbor to the northeast would be no more forthcoming.

In that sense, Assad seems to have shrewdly scored a tactical victory on the diplomatic battle-field, timing his purportedly positive response on the eve of the summit meeting of seven leading industrialized nations in London, thereby ensuring maximum publicity.

But it is not yet clear that the entire onus will be put on Israel, as Secretary of State Baker makes another swing through the Middle East.

Baker, who encountered nothing but frustration in his junkets to the region after the Persian Gulf War, stressed Tuesday that the Syrian letter did not “presume to speak for other countries or other interests.”

Hinting at possible opposition from Jordan’s King Hussein and the Palestinians the Hashemite monarch may be asked to represent, Baker said, “There are plenty of hurdles, and we’re not there by a long shot.”

“This is a dual-track process, so we have not just the Israeli-Arab state negotiations to consider, but the Israeli-Arab state negotiations to consider as well.”

Nevertheless, the secretary is expected to intensify his pressure on the Shamir government when he arrives in Israel on Sunday night, at the end of the Tisha B’Av fast.

Bracing for a confrontation, Shamir’s office made it clear Tuesday that “Israel will stand by all its positions and principles, as expressed in the prime minister’s letter to President Bush.”

In the letter, Shamir is said to have opposed Bush’s suggestion that a “silent” U.N. observer be allowed to participate in the proposed peace conference and that the conference reconvene periodically — with the unanimous consent of all parties — to hear reports on the progress of the bilateral, direct talks that the conference would initiate.

Israel insists that the peace conference be no more than a ceremonial curtain-raiser for separate direct talks with Palestinians and Arab states, and be quickly and permanently adjourned.

Similarly, it fears a U.N. presence, even with no more than observer status, would set a dangerous precedent for U.N. involvement in the peace process.

ELECTIONS MAY BE A FACTOR

The Syrian position had been quite the opposite.

Assad, in his extensive talks with Baker last month, demanded a full-fledged international conference under the auspices of the five permanent members of the Security Council, based on Resolutions 242 and 338, which the Arabs interpret as embodying the principle of trading territory for peace.

Baker said Syria “would still like to have a silent U.N. presence” at any peace conference but that Assad’s letter did not state any conditions for Syria joining a peace conference.

If Israel cannot find a way to appear to be equally forthcoming, it faces the prospect of Assad looking like the “good guy” in the Middle East equation and Shamir looking like the spoiler.

But political commentators here pointed out this week that the Israeli premier has some room to maneuver.

The Knesset goes on summer recess July 24. Until it reconvenes in October, Shamir’s government is immune from no-confidence motions. That means the prime minister will be able to conduct foreign policy without dissent from either the government or the opposition.

When the Knesset does reconvene, it will be barely a year before both the Israeli parliamentary elections and the U.S. presidential elections.

The United States historically is loath to apply any sort of pressure on Israel during a presidential election year, which could give Shamir a long breathing spell.

And Shamir could always opt for early Knesset elections at home, rather than make any real concessions.

The collapse of the Israeli government could put the peace process on hold indefinitely.

NEXT STORY