Prospects for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement before next year’s Israeli elections appear increasingly grim.
Voicing a downbeat assessment of the latest developments, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told his Cabinet this week that even the prospects of reaching an “interim agreement” before November 1996 are not good.
The prospects for reaching a permanent agreement with Damascus in the foreseeable future, Rabin implied, simply do not exist.
Rabin’s statement to the Cabinet was widely interpreted here as his first attempt to confront Israeli public opinion with the reality of a faltering peace policy on the Syrian front.
Despite the Israeli government’s declared readiness to make major territorial concessions – including its undeclared but heavily hinted readiness to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights – Syrian President Hafez Assad, for reasons of his own, is apparently not rushing into an accord.
As a result, Rabin, who intends to lead his Labor Party into next year’s elections, will have to persuade the Israeli public that his readiness to make far-reaching concessions was neither a sign of weakness nor a waste of time.
He will also have to convince the electorate that he never forgot Israeli security needs during the years of on-again, off-again negotiations with Syria.
In addition, he will probably also make the point that his conciliatory policy of land-for-peace process to proceed successfully on other fronts.
Some political observers say that if the prime minister can score these points with the Israeli electorate, he will hardly mourn Assad’s refusal to reach an accord.
Given the deepening divide within Israel over the implementation of the next phase of the self-rule accord with the Palestinians, the Rabin government is arguably too weak to take on what would inevitably be a bitterly controversial withdrawal on the Golan Heights.
Last week, three renegade members of the Labor Party introduced a Golan bill that would have required a so-called “super-majority” of 70 of 120 Knesset voters – or a majority of all eligible voters in a referendum – to approve any withdrawal from the Golan.
Although the bill went down in a tie vote, the closeness of the vote dramatically demonstrated the extreme precariousness and vulnerability and vulnerability of the government’s position on the Syrian issue.
Given this precariousness, political observers suggest that purely in terms of domestic politics and election strategy, the best things for Rabin to do at this time would be to put the entire Israeli-Syrian peace process into a deep freeze.
Given Assad’s stubborn refusal to return to the bargaining table, they add, Israel would clearly not be the party blamed – either in Washington or in Arab capitals – for the failure to move forward.
But the lack of progress with Syria would mean an ongoing and perhaps worsening mini-war in southern Lebanon.
Earlier this week, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier was killed when a missile launched by hezbollah fundamentalists blew up an Israeli tank inside the security zone.
But in cynically political terms, the situation in Lebanon – going on now for almost two decades – is sustainable as long as the fighting remains relatively small-scale.
Rabin’s sudden pessimism during Sunday’s Cabinet session regarding the stalled talks with Syria may also have been intended – American urging – to try to jolt the impassive Assad out of his stubborn lethargy and speed up the peace process.
As Rabin spoke, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his Mideast team were engaged in intensive efforts in Washington to draw the two sides back to their negotiating table.
Christopher is reported to have fired off a stern missive to Assad over Syria’s backing away from an earlier commitment to hold talks between top Syrian and Israeli military officers in Washington before the end of July.
The Syrians recently proclaimed their willingness to resume diplomatic talks at the ambassadorial level, but Rabin is insisting on a resumption of the military talks as a follow-up to meetings between the two countries’ chiefs of staff in late June.
Further complicating the picture, Syria has also backed away from its stated willingness in mid-July to have early-warning stations on the Golan Heights after an Israeli withdrawal from the area, provided they were not staffed by Israeli personnel.
This was seen at the time as a significant step forward – but it was soon followed by a sharp reversal of the Syrian stance.
American diplomats have been endlessly frustrated in their efforts to get the two sides back to the bargaining table.
Plainly, the Clinton administration would still like to achieve a high-profile peacemaking success on the Israeli-Syrian front before American politicians, like their Israeli counterparts, get caught up in campaigning for next year’s elections.
In the past, it was widely thought that Assad was earnestly interested in providing the Americans with such a success, and that this indeed was a key motive in his readiness to engage the Israelis across the negotiating table.
This no doubt remains the case to a certain degree. But the Republican- dominated Congress’ unwillingness to dole out huge sums of foreign aid means that a peace deal with Israel would presumably be much less lucrative than Damascus had earlier anticipated.
As a result, although Damascus no longer has its longtime superpower backing from Moscow, Syria’s Washington option may now look less attractive in Assad’s eyes.