Syria's President Bashar Assad is proving to be as stubborn a character as his father.
But where Assad senior showed his obduracy by refusing to make concessions for peace, the younger Assad shows his by continually pushing for peace talks -- or at least saying he wants them.
Despite repeated failures to elicit a positive response from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Assad continues to call for a dialogue with Israel, using every available emissary to deliver the message. According to several Western diplomats and politicians who have met the Syrian leader lately, Assad remains ready to start talks immediately, without preconditions.
However, Sharon is unimpressed, insisting that Assad is not interested in peace, only in dialogue. According to Sharon, what Assad really wants is a show of talks to alleviate U.S. pressure on him to democratize and stop supporting terrorism.
Not everyone in the Israeli establishment agrees, though. In the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Foreign Ministry, calls are mounting for Assad to be put to the test.
Assad's latest peace message was delivered by U.N. Special Envoy Terje Larsen, who met Assad in Damascus on Nov. 25.
"President Assad has reiterated to me today that he has an outstretched hand to his Israeli counterparts, and that he is willing to go to the table without conditions," Larsen declared after their tete-a-tete.
A Syrian spokesman later clarified that while it was true that Assad had no preconditions, he believed it would be a pity to waste what had been agreed on in almost a decade of negotiations his father conducted with previous Israeli governments. Previous Israeli prime ministers reportedly agreed to return the entire Golan Heights to Syria, but the talks broke down over Syria's insistence on keeping Israeli land it took by force after Israel's 1948 War of Independence.
"About 80 percent of the issues have already been resolved," the spokesman claimed.
Assad had sent the same message with Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in September; Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) in early November; several European diplomats over the past few months; and the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, a few weeks ago.
In an early November briefing to a small audience, including the Israeli consul in New York, Mustafa claimed that Israel and Syria had been on the verge of agreement three times, and that each time Israel pulled back because of a lack of political power or political will.
The implication was clear: If Israel could muster the political will today, a peace deal was there for the taking.
Officially, Israel says that if Assad wants peace, he first must stop supporting terrorism. The Syrian leader should close down Palestinian terrorist offices in Damascus and stop supporting the radical Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared in Jerusalem in late November.
Assad claims the terrorist offices in Damascus deal only in public relations and that, in any case, he is willing to discuss their continued presence on Syrian soil, as well as the Hezbollah question, during peace talks. Everything would be on the table, he says, and -- just as Syria doesn't have preconditions -- neither should Israel, Assad says.
Israeli officials said the demand to close terrorist offices is not a precondition but a call for a signal that Assad is serious about peace.
The Israeli army believes Assad is serious. According to military intelligence, if Israel would be ready to go back to its pre-1967 borders, Assad would be ready to make peace. For months now, military intelligence has been recommending to Israeli politicians that Assad's intentions should at least be tested.
But Sharon remains skeptical. His aides said there has been no substantial change in the signals from Damascus and, therefore, no change in the prime minister's position.
Sharon holds that Assad has been feeling the heat since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Syria is defined as a rogue state, and with U.S. forces next door, Syria fears it could become a target. Assad wants to appease Washington, and one of the best ways to do that would be to open talks with Israel under U.S. auspices.
Sharon aides said that with Israel about to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, Assad knows the prime minister can't contemplate simultaneous concessions on another front, so there's little chance Assad will be engaged and tested. Therefore, they said, he merely is making "cost-free" declarations to score points in the international community, especially with the United States.
But other Israeli officials have reservations about Sharon's attitude. A senior Foreign Ministry official reportedly argued in a recent closed debate that "negotiations with Syria can't hurt anyone. Assad's intentions ought to be thoroughly examined. Rejecting him out of hand is bewildering."
Israel, the official continued, is locked into a preconception that Assad is not serious about peace and that rejecting his overtures won't have any warlike consequences.
"But we could be making a big mistake," he warned.
Leaders of the opposition Labor Party also have been critical. They say Israel has nothing to lose by talking to Assad: If he is serious, a genuine peace dialogue will evolve, and if not, he'll be smoked out.
In an editorial on Sunday, the daily newspaper Ha'aretz wrote that if the government thinks Assad is trying to get away with "cost-free" declarations, it should call his bluff.
"This is precisely why Israel should return the diplomatic ball to Assad's court," Ha'aretz wrote. "It must prove to the international community, as well as to the upper echelons of the IDF, the intelligence community and the Foreign Ministry -- who are not happy with the government's response -- that they are wrong."
Moreover, Ha'aretz wrote, there are other reasons to take Assad up: It would be to Israel's advantage to negotiate while Assad is weak and under international pressure, it would be good to put Syria's support for terrorism at the top of the agenda and it would be better to get back to the negotiating table without having to go through another round of violence.
It seems more likely, however, that Sharon will continue to insist that Assad first expel the Palestinian terrorist leaders from Damascus before making any reciprocal move.
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