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. …