JERUSALEM, Jan. 12 (JTA) — Something not-so-funny happened to Moshe Katsav on his way to a New Middle East. Encouraged by reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted to renew peace talks with Israel, the Israeli president this week extended an open invitation to Assad to visit Jerusalem “to conduct negotiations with the leaders of the State of Israel.” It took only a few hours for the Syrians to reject the invitation. “This is not a serious proposal,” said Buthaina Sha’aban, a Syrian government minister. Sha’aban told CNN that if Israel wanted to make a serious response to Assad’s offer of talks, it should say, “Yes, we are interested in peace, we want to negotiate and to resume peace negotiations from where they stopped with the co-sponsorship of the United States.” Israel so far has refused to resume negotiations from that point. Former Syrian President Hafez Assad’s insistence on gaining control not just of the Golan Heights but also of land Syria captured from Israel in the 1948 War of Independence, and which Israel won back in 1967, jeopardized negotiations in which Israel reportedly was willing to give up virtually the entire Golan. The bottom line of the recent exchange of declarations was embarrassment for Katsav, who hadn’t consulted with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before extending his offer to Assad. “He should have coordinated this with Sharon,” former Foreign Minister Moshe Arens told JTA. “I would not have rushed to make such a hasty offer to Syria.” One reason Katsav didn’t consult Sharon was that Sharon has serious doubts about Assad’s intentions. Sharon said Israel is willing to negotiate with all Arab countries, “including Syria and Libya,” but that the Arabs first must prove that they are ready to conduct “a determined campaign against terrorism.” “Just as we ask the Palestinians to dismantle terrorism before opening negotiations, so is our demand from Syria,” Sharon said. Katsav, explaining Assad’s rebuff, said, “It seems that the Syrian president is not made of the same material as the former Egyptian president, Sadat,” who made an epochal trip to Israel in 1977. That launched a peace process that ended with Israel agreeing to relinquish the entire Sinai Peninsula. It may indeed be true that Assad isn’t of Anwar Sadat’s caliber, but even Sadat’s historic visit was carefully planned in a series of secret negotiations between Israel’s then-foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, and a Sadat adviser. The open declarations of Sadat’s intentions, first in the Egyptian Parliament and then in interviews with Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite, came after the secret negotiations, not before. But the air remains rife with talk about new horizons in Middle Eastern politics, not to speak of a New Middle East. According to reports, a Druse member of Knesset from Sharon’s Likud Party, Majallie Whbee, might go to Damascus on an exploratory mission. On other fronts, Israeli officials reportedly met with Libyan officials to discuss relations between the two countries. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom spoke about similar contacts with a number of Arab countries, apparently referring to the Persian Gulf states. Sudan also is trying to improve its relations with the United States, reminding some in Jerusalem of past Israeli contacts with Khartoum. Experts agree that as a result of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, radical Arab leaders such as Assad and Muammar Gadhafi of Libya have changed their politics to please the Americans. “Undoubtedly, there are significant changes,” Arens said. “As a result of the Iraq war, Israel feels less threatened.” Some observers, such as the editorial board and columnists for Israel’s daily Ha’aretz, have accused Sharon and his government of ignoring openings for peace. Israel, which for decades has said it seeks peace, now is rejecting an Arab leader’s hand extended in peace, critics say. “I am disappointed with the Israeli reaction” to Assad’s comments, said Tel Aviv University Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syrian affairs. “It is still far from a real desire for peace.” His conclusion: There is only a very slight chance that anything will move toward a regional settlement, because none of the parties is serious. “The Syrians are only willing to check options, the Israelis are not even willing to do that and the Americans just want to be left alone,” Zisser said. Arens, however, said Israel should show a willingness to talk but shouldn’t make an excessive offer to the Syrians. “We can talk, but it’s not a must,” he said. “Every crime deserves a punishment, and the Syrians have committed throughout the years a lot of crimes against Israel, and they have to pay.” In other words, according to Arens, the Syrians have no right to get the Golan, despite the precedent of Sinai being turned over to the Egyptians, down to the last grain of sand. Unlike some Middle East experts, Arens and a few other politicians — such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who conducted secret talks with Damascus during his term as prime minister — believe Syria is so weak that it might be willing to compromise on the Golan now. “We can wait, we have time. Just as they had agreed that Iskandrun would become part of Turkey,” Arens said, referring to a past territorial dispute between Turkey and Syria in which Damascus blinked first, “they will have to give up part of the Golan.” Much depends on the stance of the United States, said Yehoshua Porat, a professor emeritus of Middle East history at Hebrew University. “The Arabs have understood that the Cold War is over and that only America counts,” Porat said. “They understand that the Americans can do whatever they want, so they are a little frightened.” But Porat, like others, said he doesn’t detect a real turning point in Arab attitudes toward Israel. “The animosity is too deep,” he said.
Winds of change in Mideast?