By all accounts, the Israeli-Syrian indirect negotiations through Turkish mediation are going well, and the fact that a fourth round of talks is scheduled for the end of July suggests that both sides expect to make further progress. The reports from Damascus and Ankara, however, indicating that Syria will not enter into direct negotiations with Israel before the advent of new American administration show an obstructive apprehension on the part of the Syrian government. Indeed, Damascus should not only agree to direct negotiations with Israel -- as Turkish officials strongly recommend -- but time has come for it to make a bold move toward the Israelis. A high level meeting, for example, between Israel and Syria can change overnight the dynamic of their negotiations and dramatically increase the Bush administration's stakes in its successful outcome.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's effort to write off the Bush administration, however antagonistic it may be toward Damascus, is ultimately a mistake because it fails to take into account what Bush's attitude would be toward the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace under his watch. Assad knows that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not have entered any negotiations, directly or indirectly without, at a minimum, the acquiescence of the Bush administration. Having failed to demonstrate a clear-cut foreign policy achievement in Iraq, Iran or with the Palestinians, Mr. Bush is more than eager to capitalize on any potential breakthrough that may come his way during his waning days in the White House. Having just returned from an extended visit to Turkey and Israel where I met with officials from both sides, the sentiment is clear: while the negotiations are going well, something dramatic and bold is needed to secure the durability of the negotiations and ensure a successful outcome. We know that Israel and Syria have a clear understanding of each others requirements to make peace. Otherwise, Syria in particular, would have not entered into any peace talks, let alone made them public.
Despite the White House statements indicating that the US will not participate in talks with Syria, reaching an agreement between Israel and Syria will have a dramatically positive ripple effect throughout the Middle East. It will improve the conditions in Iraq, help to undermine Iran, weaken Hamas and give Lebanon breathing room to achieve political stability. This is what the Bush administration wants and needs more than ever at this time. Now that Israel has the potential to open Washington's door for Damascus, Assad has a golden opportunity to capitalize on Bush's desire to claim one important foreign policy achievement, all while enhancing his own international standing. Moreover, regardless of who is the next President of the United States, Barack Obama or John McCain, they will feel politically and morally inclined to engage Syria directly which is precisely what Damascus wants. If Bush can help broker an agreement even in principle between the two countries, it will drastically influence the decisions the next US administration will have to make in the Middle East. The upcoming Mediterranean Union Partnership conference held in Paris under the auspices of the French government offers President Assad a momentous opportunity to achieve an historic breakthrough. He must seize it.
A bold move by Syria will also have an incredibly wide appeal throughout Israel. For one thing, most Israelis remain skeptical about Syria's ultimate intentions. They are looking for a credible gesture that only a bold move such as an official meeting between Olmert and Assad could validate. Many Israelis still feel nostalgic about the visit of the late President of Egypt Anwar Al-Sadat to Israel in 1977 and the profound impact it has had on the Israelis' public opinion regarding the exchange of territory for peace. Moreover, Olmert is politically beleaguered and he may not survive but a few more months in office. What such a gesture can accomplish will transcend Olmert's tenure in office as it will shift the Israeli public opinion which currently favors keeping the Golan Heights as a measure of safety. Regardless of who may succeed Olmert - -including the Likud's party leader Netanyahu who opposes the return of land -- the public will be on the side of peace-making, even in exchange for the Golan Heights, and will demand the continuation of the peace process.
Surely President Assad has his own people he must consider first. There are no indications that the Syrian public will frown over such a gesture, knowing full well that their president is committed to regaining the Golan without the use of force but with tough diplomacy and negotiations. For the past two years President Assad has repeatedly called for peace negotiations with Israel and prepared the public for such eventuality. Many Syrians received with satisfaction the news about the Israeli-Syrian peace talks and understand the critical value of normalizing relations with the United States. Assad stated clearly in an interview on Monday that "The most important thing in direct negotiations is who sponsors them... Perhaps we could give some trump cards to the new [US] administration to get it more involved." Even if in the end a peace agreement with Israel is not fully materialized during the Bush administration, President Assad's gestures now will position Syria in the best possible light for continued negotiations with the next US president, which he has made a top priority.
Turkey's facilitation of any gestures leading to an agreement would certainly consolidate its leadership position in the Middle East as an international peace maker. At a time when Turkey is vying heavily for EU membership, every contribution to stability and peaceful developments between its neighbors will enhance its prospects favorably.
Both President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert are politically weak, and although they are not likely to make reckless moves to cover for their weaknesses, they are certainly more inclined to be accommodating if the prospect of real peace avails itself. What Damascus needs to understand is that for President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert, time is of the essence. Assad must therefore act with deliberation and do every thing in his power to seize a unique opportunity consistent with his bold move to make the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations public.