Bringing Israel, Syria Back to Negotiating Table by Drafting Separate 'Letters of Assurance,' Washington Hopes to Assuage the Two Antagonists' Individual Concerns

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In the aftermath of Israel's redeployment in Hebron, United States attention has shifted to the Syrian track.

US diplomats are actively engaged in restarting negotiations between Syria and Israel that were suspended by Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres almost a year ago.

The outlines of the Syrian-Israeli dispute over resuming the talks were established in July 1996, after the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister. Syrian President Hafez al Assad informed US negotiator Dennis Ross that Syria was prepared to resume discussions on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of "land for peace," as well as on the "assumption" that Mr. Netanyahu would resume talks where they left off in February 1996. Israel informed Washington it would resume talks on the basis of 242 and 338 only. The road map the US is now following owes much to the experience of former Secretary of State James Baker. In the aftermath of the Gulf war, Mr. Baker won grudging approval from Israeli and Syrian leaders for the Madrid Conference. A "letter of invitation" to the Madrid gathering was given to Mr. Assad and Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister at the time, by Washington and Moscow. Baker also provided Israel and Syria (as well as the Palestinians and Lebanese) with different "letters of assurance," each tailored to assuage the fears of the individual recipients. Today the Clinton administration, anxious to stabilize relations between Israel and Syria, is taking this page from Baker's book. Washington is drafting separate letters of assurance to each party - a diplomatic device aimed at bridging the seemingly irreconcilable public positions of Syria and Israel and reengaging the two across a negotiating table. Bridge the gap This feat isn't as difficult as it might appear. Washington must bridge the gap between the "letter of invitation" to Madrid, which proposed Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for talks, and the "letter of assurance" to Syria, which committed Washington to the principle of "land for peace" on the Golan Heights. Each party has reason to resume discussions. The US wants to stabilize a front that recently has threatened to explode into military confrontation. The Netanyahu government wants to reestablish the third "Syrian" point in a "triangular diplomacy" between itself and the Palestinians as a way to deflect Palestinian demands as it faces difficult decisions about "further redeployment" in the West Bank. Syria views a renewed dialogue as a means of keeping Syria safe from an Israeli attack. …