According to this report, Syrian President Assad is willing to move forward with peace talks with Israel, and Turkey is available to mediate, but there is “no Israeli partner willing to move forward.” According to the same report, however, as well as this Reuters story in the New York Times, Prime Minister Netanyahu has given assurances that Israel is prepared to resume negotiations unconditionally. But Israel says it would prefer to negotiate directly with Syria, or use a French mediator, rather than through Turkey, according to the Jerusalem Post.
What is going on here? Is this some kind of elaborate courting ritual, where each side is waiting for the other to ask for a dance? Or do the parties mean different things by the same words? Assad hinted at the latter explanation when he stated the following:
Syria does not have any conditions. Syria has rights and Syria will never give up these rights. All this word play from the Israelis is meant to do away [with] demands and rights. This can only accentuate instability in the region. (Reuters/New York Times)
Syria says it is not insisting on pre-conditions, but has rights that it will never give up. Israel says it is willing to negotiate without pre-conditions, but according to Assad, Israel does not mean what it says. Obviously the level of distrust in this situation is high. Further, both sides seem to want to maintain the moral high ground, and gain whatever advantages they can, before negotiations even commence. Perhaps there is also a bit of stalling going on here also. The New York Times story suggests that Assad is looking for greater U.S. involvement to push both parties toward peace. Perhaps Assad believes that the deal he wants will only be attainable if the U.S. pressures Israel to make greater concessions. Perhaps he believes he needs to be “forced” into making a deal to maintain his political standing in Syria. So it may be in Syria’s interest at this point to blame Israel for impeding progress toward resuming negotiations. By suggesting that he cannot take Netanyahu’s words at face value, and that Israel does not mean what it says when it expresses a willingness to negotiate without conditions, Assad may be creating an obstacle to peace talks that can only be removed by U.S. involvement.
Sometimes parties need a heavyweight to push them to make a deal that they cannot make themselves without facing unacceptable political repercussions. In the case of Syria and Israel, both have understood for years the outlines of a possible deal for Israel to surrender the Golan Heights in exchange for peace and appropriate security arrangements. The will to make such a deal has been lacking, however. More gamesmanship and maneuvering will no doubt take place before any such deal can be made.
(Golan Heights photo from planetware)