President Clinton’s visit last week to the Middle East may have narrowed some gaps in the efforts between Israel and Syria to reach a peace agreement but, as expected, produced no dramatic breakthrough.
Sources say the full impact of the presidential mission will become clearer only after the next visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. That trip is scheduled for the coming weeks.
The sources also say a major breakthrough is possible within six months and is likelier to be achieved if Clinton stays personally involved in the diplomacy.
The outline of a basic agreement between Israel and Syria is already in place, according to insiders. Israel has expressed its willingness to withdraw from most if not all of the Golan Heights, while Syria has agreed to normalized relations in return.
The remaining dispute is over the timetable, and the two sides were believed to have narrowed their differences during the president’s trip.
Fresh from Damascus, Clinton made a point of reassuring Israelis in his speech to the Knesset last week that “something is changing in Syria.
“Syria has made a strategic choice for peace with Israel,” he said. “Its leaders understand it is time to make peace. There will still be a lot of hard (work) before a breakthrough, but they are serious about proceedings.”
Nevertheless, both Clinton and the Israelis expressed disappointment over the failure of Syrian President Hafez Assad to use a joint press conference in Damascus as an opportunity to assuage Israeli fears over withdrawing from the Golan.
“The Israeli government is committed to making painful concessions on the Golan Heights,” said a Foreign Ministry source.
In order to get Israeli public support, “the government needs confidence- building measures” from Syria and “we were disappointed by (Syria’s) public diplomacy,” he said.
“We had hoped to hear more details about what (Assad) means by normalization and peaceful relations” with Israel, the diplomat continued.
Not doing so “hurts the government and the peace process,” he said. If the Israeli public does not understand what it will receive in return for giving up the Golan, it will not support such a move, he added.
Assad also fell far short of expectations when it came to the subject of terrorism, said the source.
“We wanted a condemnation. Instead, (Assad) was quite cynical” in his insistence that no one can prove direct Syrian links to terrorist activity.
There did appear to be one tangible development from Clinton’s meeting with Assad.
After Clinton left Syria, Lebanese President Elias Hrawi offered to call a cease-fire in the guerrilla activities of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement while negotiating with Israel about an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
While this was not an unprecedented offer, it was widely seen as a conciliatory gesture by Assad, whose control of Hezbollah is commonly known.
For Eyal Zisser, Syrian expert at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, the principal purpose of the Clinton visit was “not to insult Assad” by leaving him out.
“The main objective was to keep Syria committed to the peace process after the agreement with Jordan,” said Zisser.
At the same time, he said, Assad resisted American pressure to make the necessary conciliatory “gestures” toward the Israeli public because he does not grasp their importance and refuses to play the game.
This refusal will make it difficult to sell the concessions to the Israelis, Zisser said.
“For us, it’s peace, and we want (the appropriate) statements and gestures. For the Arabs, it’s a deal they have to make for their relations with the United States and the survival of their regimes,” he said.
Moshe Maoz, another Syrian expert and Assad-watcher at Hebrew University, said that while he had expected more conciliatory public diplomacy from Assad, he believed something had been accomplished privately.
“I don’t think Clinton would go all this way to come back empty-handed,” he said.
He said he believes the gaps in the countries’ negotiating positions were narrowed.
“If Syria wants a withdrawal in one or two years, and Israel in four or five, there were probably compromises here,” he said.
There may also have been agreement on starting “low-level diplomatic relations” in an earlier phase of withdrawal than Syria had wanted, he said.
“The United States holds the key,” said Maoz. Syria needs to get its name off the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism so it can attract international investment and become eligible for direct aid from the United States, he said.
At the same time, Maoz said, Clinton gave assurances to the Israelis that the United States would maintain Israel’s qualitative edge, which is “very important to induce Israel to come to a compromise with Syria.”
But Dore Gold, an analyst with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, criticized Clinton and his administration for being “obsessed” with “molding Israeli public opinion to prepare it for painful concessions on the Golan.”
He believes the U.S. rush for a deal between Israel and Syria is ill-conceived.
“The mistake of the Clinton administration is making the top priority the achievement of agreements and signing ceremonies and not the realization of national interests.”
In fact, said Gold, “the real questions should be: `Is Syria ready to make peace with Israel, and what is the content of the security arrangements’ – the Achilles heel of the agreement.”
He said if an agreement is made without completely ironing out security provisions, the United States will have to step in and “fill the gaps,” and this would have grave consequences.
“If you add Israeli military dependence on the U.S. to the (existing) economic dependence, you will (damage) all the basic underpinnings of U.S.-Israel relations since 1948,” he said.
“We need a very precise clarification of what the U.S. should do and shouldn’t do with regard to involvement in Israel’s security,” said Gold. “But they’re afraid to debate this in Washington because they’re afraid it will torpedo the agreement, and that’s a mistake.”
Meanwhile, some close observers of the process feel that the window of opportunity for a deal is slowly closing. They say something decisive must happen before next summer, when campaigns for Israeli elections go into high gear.
For his part, Gold said he does not see the Israeli public buying a deal with Syria quickly or easily.
He said Israelis are “exhausted” by all the questions that have surfaced about the accord with the Palestinians and by all the “peace ceremonies.
“The government’s battle of the Golan Heights will be uphill,” he said.
Zisser said he would not make a prediction about when or if a deal would be made and bought by the Israelis, but said he would not be surprised if it came within six months.