Israeli-Syrian peace talks: Who was the first to blink

Given the ambiguity of the formula for resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations and the numerous complex issues on the table, the odds of success seem quite low.

Despite the excitement and even euphoria it generated, the very cautious and precise language in President Clinton's statement last week should be a warning. Clinton said the talks would "be resumed from the point that they had stopped." He did not offer additional details.

For the past six months, Syria and Israel have been arguing precisely about this point. The resolution, if any, remains a mystery and a source of anxiety.

Syria, assisted by journalist Patrick Seale, has insisted that the talks recessed after the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the United States that Israel would agree to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, as well as from the areas occupied by Syria in 1948, in the context of a treaty.

In contrast Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government, supported by the United States, has insisted that no such promise was ever made and that the Syrians either misunderstood or distorted the record.

It is possible that in the exchanges of the past six months, a detailed formula was in fact reached. Perhaps both sides are waiting to develop the appropriate political conditions before making the agreement public.

Perhaps the Syrians have prevailed, as the official media in Damascus boasts, and Barak has already accepted the demand for a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. This would allow Assad to claim credit for getting more from Israel than Anwar Sadat or King Hussein received.

Alternatively, it is possible that Assad blinked first, agreeing to enter negotiations without any guarantees from Israel on borders. Concerned by the Israeli plans to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon, by the looming succession crisis in Syria, as well as economic decline and isolation, Assad may finally have faced reality. Without compromise, he risks leaving all of the Golan Heights under Israeli control while the Syrian position steadily worsens.

If a secret agreement has been reached, the negotiations would be designed to develop a package, which, when announced publicly, will satisfy the interests of both sides. In the political equivalent of "money laundering," a facade of staged crises, table-pounding and last-minute concessions on other issues will give such an agreement legitimacy.

However, this would be a dangerous strategy. Barak has pledged to put the text of the peace treaty before the voters for approval in a referendum.

Critics, led by Likud leader Ariel Sharon, will note that allowing Syria to maintain "occupied territories" captured in 1948, while Israel withdraws from the areas taken in 1967, is the height of chutzpah.

Perhaps serious Syrian concessions on every other issue — security, water, open access to the Golan, stability in Lebanon and joint economic enterprises — would shift the balance in favor of approval.

Alternatively, if the eventual treaty is based on a territorial compromise, Assad will have to explain and sell this position. Granted, in the absence of a free press, political debate and a pluralistic society, this may be easier in Syria than such a turn-around would be in Israel.

Nevertheless, it would be very costly for Assad's image as the protector of Arab honor and rights. And it would complicate the stable transfer of power to his son Bashar.

However, it is also possible neither side blinked, and that the talks will open without agreement. This would be another example of faith in "constructive ambiguity" to start negotiations. The assumption is that once the opposing sides begin to talk, their mutual interests will guide them to the necessary concessions.

If this strategy of constructive ambiguity succeeds, there are no complaints regarding the methods. But if it fails, the cost is huge. When one or both sides are led to believe or have convinced themselves that their position has been accepted, it leads to anger and resentment.

None of these options is particularly encouraging, and while the resumption of negotiations on the Syrian track is a positive step, the way this breakthrough was achieved could end up being costly. The road to a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Syria is still long, with many obstacles along the way.