In a period of tremendous political uncertainty following the death of Syrian president Hafez Assad, one element of his political legacy is especially likely to overshadow the peace process in the years ahead: the terms he laid out in his failed Geneva summit with US President Bill Clinton.
Assad left little room for ambiguity: Full peace required Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967 line. And, equally important, he was not at all vague about what the June 4 line meant geographically: Syrian sovereignty right up to the water line of Lake Kinneret.
Bashar Assad, assuming his succession is secured, will derive much of his legitimacy from the extent to which he carries on the legacy of his father. Thus while there are some expectations that the heir apparent, with his British education and Internet interests, will bring to the peace table a very different generational perspective than his Soviet-styled father, the legacy of Geneva is equally likely to bind him to terms of a peace settlement that Israel cannot accept.
In short, quick breakthroughs on the Syrian track are not likely, at least for the near future while Bashar Assad attempts to consolidate his position. And even assuming he manages the tests he will face in this transition, his diplomatic flexibility will be severely constrained.
While Assad’s death is chiefly a Syrian story, it must have a serious impact on the Palestinian track as well. Originally, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly built his entire negotiating strategy on the synergy between the two tracks. It was hoped that, by first cutting a deal with Hafez Assad, Barak would be able to undercut Arafat’s negotiating leverage, thereby reducing Palestinian expectations and making a deal over the West Bank and Gaza – on Israel’s terms – more feasible.
Moreover, if both peace treaties were completed at about the same time, Barak could bring them together to the Israeli public in a referendum, in which the nation would be asked to support the concessions needed to end, once and for all, the Arab-Israeli conflict, on all fronts. Presented this way, with the full backing of the Clinton administration, it would be hard for Israelis to object.
The death of the Syrian president has reshuffled the diplomatic deck entirely.
Arafat’s negotiating leverage has considerably improved; since for the time being there is no competing peace track, he now holds the key to the peace process, exclusively. Under such conditions, it will become more difficult for Barak to reduce Palestinian expectations and to obtain Arafat’s acquiescence to Israeli annexations of West Bank territory.
Even before Assad’s death, the image of an IDF retreat from Hizbullah in Lebanon was hardening the Palestinian position and resurrecting, in some quarters, the belief in armed struggle.
There is another factor that is likely to affect Arafat’s calculations of his position: Hafez Assad’s disdain for Arafat was ideological and personal.
Assad’s belief in a primordial Syria, Bilad A-Sham, that extended from parts of Turkey to Jordan and Israel, was part of his ideological outlook. For this reason, he would lecture western diplomats on the evils of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided his Greater Syria into colonial spheres of influence. For Assad, the Palestinians were southern Syrians cut away from their homeland because of Anglo-French machinations.
But it was Arafat’s refusal to accept Syria’s domination of the Palestinians’ freedom of action that converted Assad’s ideological problems with the PLO into a personal matter with respect to Arafat. When the PLO broke Arab ranks and signed the Oslo Accords separately with Israel in 1993, leaving Syria to fend for itself, Arafat’s problems in Damascus only intensified.
Today, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have an opportunity to begin an entirely new relationship with the Syrian leadership, without the bad blood of the past. Bashar Assad will need a period of reduced regional tensions, while he devotes himself primarily to his domestic agenda. He will be less predisposed to manipulating the Palestinian rejectionist organizations in Lebanon and Syria against Arafat.
But if it becomes clear that Arafat plans to reach a new, separate framework agreement with Israel that leaves Syria diplomatically weaker, then Bashar Assad and his advisers will be more prone to continue the rivalry with the PLO and seek to split away Arab political support for the Palestinians.
If Arafat insists on preserving complete freedom of action without coordinating with the new Syrian leadership, he may lose a rare opportunity to restore Arab solidarity and a broad Arab consensus to back his claims internationally. Israel could face a much more cohesive Arab diplomatic front, or even deeper rifts and recriminations than it witnessed in recent years. Lebanon might become the initial location of that struggle.
For Israel, the death of Hafez Assad has rapidly expanded the number of possible regional scenarios for the Middle East. The peace process itself is far less predicable than it might have been a week ago.
All of this underlines one simple fact: While the relations between nations can be based on a reading of intentions or on a careful look at military capabilities, in the Middle East, intentions can shift overnight with the death of a leader and the emergence of new constellations of power.
That should guide the architects of the peace process, who can often get caught up in choreographing their next moves based on what exists for the the time being – and not on the basis of what will preserve international understandings through changed circumstances over time.
(The writer served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999) and currently heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.)