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How not to negotiate with Syria

Jerusalem Post, Nov 25, 2008

The "Syrian track" - Israel's negotiation with Syria, actual and potential, about the resolution of their conflicts - is very much in the news now. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would like to have a fifth round of these indirect negotiations with Damascus under Turkish mediation. He would like to upgrade them into direct negotiations and possibly reach a breakthrough that could be seen as part of a legacy. His opponents and the opponents of Golan withdrawal have argued that even if he has the legal authority, he does not have the moral authority to commit Israel to far-reaching concessions in the twilight of his tenure. More quietly, the foreign policy team of President-elect Barack Obama and Secretary of State Designate Hillary Clinton are drawing scenarios for the new administration's Middle Eastern policy. Some of them are known to favor the Syrian track over the Palestinian option. Their argument is two-fold:

1. The Syrian track is more likely to produce an early success. The Syrian-Israeli conflict is simpler than the Israeli-Palestinian one and the authoritative address missing in Ramallah is available in Damascus.
2. Syria is Iran's closest ally in the Middle East and its springboard to the region's core area. By reviving a trilateral American-Israeli-Syrian negotiation, Washington would acquire greater leverage (positive or negative) in its dealing with Teheran, one of its prime concerns in the Middle East. (This, it should be emphasized, has defiantly not been the Bush Administration's view or policy.)
IT WAS against this backdrop that Haaretz published earlier this week the gist of a document prepared in Israel's defense establishment that advocates an Israeli-Syrian deal, even at a "painful price" (namely full withdrawal from the Golan heights that Syria insists on as a sine qua non). The authors of the document argue that a Syrian-Israeli agreement holds the key to dealing with the challenges presented to Israel by Iran and by Iran and Syria through Hizbullah in Lebanon. These gains justify, so they argue, the painful concession of withdrawing fully from the Golan.
For both the American and Israeli advocates of this "geo-political" approach to a Syrian deal, Syria's disengagement from Iran would be one of its key components. As former ambassador Martin Indyk has aptly put it, the emphasis has shifted from "territories for peace" to "territories for strategic realignment."
This formula may or may not work if and when a full-fledged negotiation involving all three parties (the US, Israel and Syria) is launched in the early spring of 2009, after the Obama Administration is installed and a new Israeli government emerges from the February 10 election. But one thing is certain: With Syria, early public discussion of an idea to be raised in the negotiation is likely to undermine it.
THIS WAS one of our early lessons in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations of the 1990s. At one point we thought of long-term leasing as a potential magic formula for mitigating the territorial issue. We did not build high expectations for it, but we thought it was worth trying. At that point one of the numerous Israeli politicians who used to pronounce on the unfolding peace process proposed it in public. It took no time for the Syrians to shoot it down. This was not an isolated case and the lesson was clear - if you have a new good idea, keep it for the privacy of a confidential negotiation.
A second lesson, hardly an earthshaking discovery, was that you must not appear too eager for the deal. This immediately raises the price. From this perspective, whoever leaked the document to Haaretz has weakened Israel's hand in the negotiation with Syria.
This does not mean that a negotiation of this importance can or should be conducted in total secrecy, and that a signed and sealed deal should be delivered to a stunned public. Public diplomacy is an essential part of any negotiation and conflict resolution. But so is secret diplomacy.
If the Israeli-Syrian conflict is to be resolved, and if Damascus is to build a new relationship with Washington as part of the same process, it would take leadership and statesmanship to make it happen. Secret diplomacy (for the parties to establish the fundamentals of the deal) and public diplomacy (to prepare the ground for painful concessions and anticipated gains) would have to be sequenced carefully if the process is to succeed against many odds.
The writer, former chief negotiator with Syria and ambassador to Washington, is the author most recently of The View from Damascus (Valentine Mitchell, London and Oregon, 2008).