JERUSALEM (Jun. 11)
Peace talks between Israel and Syria, already halted, will probably be put into a deep freeze, most Israeli analysts agreed this week following the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad.
“In the near future, one cannot speak of any peace process,” said Eyal Sisser, head of the Syrian desk at the Dayan Research Center at Tel Aviv University.
However, Sisser added that in the long run, Assad’s death will contribute to the peace process because “a new leader will be committed to change.”
Syria’s new leader apparently will be Bashar Assad. On Sunday, Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party nominated Bashar to succeed his father as president. The Syrian parliament will meet June 25 to approve the nomination.
Bashar, 34, was not in line for Syria’s presidency until six years ago. He was an ophthalmologist practicing in London in 1994 when his older brother, Basil, was killed in an auto accident.
Assad summoned Bashar back to Damascus and began grooming him as his chosen successor.
“In the past six years, Bashar has managed to do what others take 16 years,” said Sisser. “He has turned from an ophthalmologist into a division commander in the special forces of the Republican Guard.”
In the past two years, Bashar was responsible for the Lebanon portfolio in the Syrian government. In his first media interview last year, he echoed his father’s line when he bitterly criticized Arab states that have signed “unilateral peace deals” with Israel.
He told a Lebanese daily that Syria was using Hezbollah fighters as a bargaining chip to pressure Israel into withdrawing from southern Lebanon.
Analysts say Bashar is unlikely to stray from the hard line his father set in negotiations with Israel. Hafez Assad had demanded a total Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967, lines.
Knesset member Yuval Steinitz of the right wing Likud Party called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak irresponsible “when he virtually pleaded with Assad to take the Golan Heights, even though he had known that his days were numbered.”
But others say that for the past two years, Israel strove to reach an agreement with Assad precisely for that reason. Israeli intelligence believed that it would be easier for Assad’s successor to implement a peace agreement signed by Assad than to negotiate on his own, said Ze’ev Schiff, military analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
However, despite Israel’s willingness to make concessions, politicians and intellectuals on both the right and left agree that Assad bore the responsibility for the futile peace talks with Israel.
“We, Israelis, have no reason to shed tears over the death of Hafez Assad,” said Nahum Barnea, a leading columnist with the newspaper Yediot Achronot.
“The man who missed all the trains and had jeopardized all peace tracks in his stubbornness and his hesitations has ended his role in the history of the Middle East.”
But Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, a leading expert on Syria and former head of the Israeli negotiating team in talks with Syria, did give Assad some credit for having “rehabilitated in recent years the idea of peace with Israel.”
However, added Rabinovich, “Assad had set a price and terms which everyone would find difficult to match.”
Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres, also a former prime minister, said he believes Assad wanted to make peace, but failed to make the necessary compromise.
“The Golan was actually handed over to him, but he wanted the Sea of Galilee as well, and that was his very grave mistake.”
But was it a mistake or a calculated maneuver?
Three months ago, Assad met President Clinton in Geneva for what had turned out to be his last opportunity to strike a deal with Israel.
“History will tell whether the failure of the Geneva meeting with Clinton was all due to Assad’s insistence on the last meter of the Sea of Galilee, or whether it was also a result of both mental and physical fatigue,” said Oded Granot, Arab Affairs correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.
Granot speculated that Assad had prioritized the smooth transition of power to his son over peace with Israel. That could have been the background for this past year’s crackdown on potential opponents to Bashar under the guise of “eradicating corruption.”
Many wonder, however, whether Bashar has the stomach to continue his father’s tradition of brutally eliminating the competition.
During his four years of medical studies in London, Bashar became familiar with Western democracy. This, experts agreed, would undoubtedly mold Bashar’s style of government.
Bashar, like King Abdullah of Jordan, is thought of as part of a new generation of Arab ruler — more Western-oriented than their predecessors.
Bashar’s best-known contribution to a potential new spirit in Damascus was introducing the Internet to Syria — although its use is still very limited and under strict control of the state.
“Prospects for an initial success are good, but Bashar’s success in establishing a stable regime and coping with rivals and challenges is still doubtful,” said Rabinovich.
Sisser of Tel Aviv University wonders how long Bashar, who is described as mild-mannered, shy and intellectual, will survive as president.
“Can a country like Syria be ruled by a person who does not spread terror, and will Bashar eventually learn to spread terror?” Sisser asked.
Sisser counted among Bashar’s potential opponents veteran senior officers and politicians such as Deputy President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and former head of intelligence Ali Douba, who may declare himself a candidate for the presidency.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said an important test for Bashar will be the now-quiet former battlegrounds of southern Lebanon.
“We have one immediate test,” Sneh said. “How will the Syrians behave in Lebanon? Will they give Hezbollah freedom of action, or will they restrain them.”
Sisser believes that a new leadership in Damascus is unlikely to launch military action against Israel.
“In the near future, the army will be busy in the process of stabilizing the country, and it will be engaged in internal activities.”