Posted by Joshua on Friday, January 12th, 2007
A Madrid Peace Conference, bringing together "unofficial" representatives of most Middle Eastern countries has been assembled over the last two days. Coverage of this "second track" effort to gin up momentum for dialogue has not been promising. The two Syrian unofficial representatives were Daoud Riyadi, who was deeply involved in past Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and Bushra Kanafani, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry. None of the regime heavy-weights were there. I had dinner with Imad Mustapha at his residence in Washington the day before yesterday and asked him whether he thought the Madrid exercise would lead to much. He knit his brows and hesitated, looking for the proper diplomatic turn of phrase to let me know that the Syrian government was not expecting much from the meeting. None of the major countries sent high level representatives. Moreover, President Bush's address on the troop surge and new Iraq policy completely upstaging Madrid. The president's message was more war not less, taking the wind out of whatever hopes one might have held out for Madrid. Here is the coverage of the Madrid Conference:
National Public Radio had a downbeat report on the Syrian representation. The Syria part goes as follows:
In the lobby of a fancy hotel in Madrid, Arabs and Israelis who took part in the talks 15 years ago greeted each other warmly, with smiles and laughs and even hugs and kisses.
Their personal relationships have survived, even flourished, despite the flaring hatreds between their peoples.
But two Syrians sitting at a table in the corner wanted nothing of the camaraderie. One was Syrian President Bashar Assad's legal adviser, Riad Daoudi. The other, Bushra Kanafani, is a foreign ministry spokeswoman.
"We are not here to hug the Israelis," Kanafani said. "Thanking them for the occupation of my own territories? Why should I do that?"
Syria demands return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.
None of the participants here — including two former Israeli intelligence chiefs — are officially representing their governments.
Still, Kanafani said Syria wants to renew peace talks.
"When the Israeli government decides that looking for peace is the best policy for Israel and the region, then we are going to welcome that and sit again together to talk peace," he said.
The Israeli government hasn't shown much interest in talking to Damascus after last summer's war against Syrian-backed Hezbollah. Some analysts wonder whether Assad is trying to distract attention from his government's alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
UPI adds: But while the 1991 event was sponsored by the Spanish government and involved all governments, the current conference is being staged by private peace foundations and none of the major players in the region have sent senior representatives.
At the opening session, there were repeated calls for an end to violence on all sides and for a greater involvement from the United Nations and the European Union but there were few concrete proposals.
"The convening of this conference 15 years later could not be more timely," wrote ex-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III in a message read to delegates. He said the current Madrid meeting "offers an opportunity to assist the possibility of moving forward toward Arab-Israeli conflict resolution."
Clinton's message stressed the new meeting showed that there was still hope for the future.
Later delegates broke away for closed-door meetings on bilateral issues such as Israel's relations with the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. They were to a have closed door plenary session later in the day before attending an audience with King Juan Carlos at the Pardo Palace on Madrid's outskirts.
Spain sees the event as part of its efforts to restart what it sees as a seriously ailing peace process.
General articles on Syrian-Israeli Dialogue
In an article in Haaretz ("Markers on the road to Damascus," Dec. 29, 2006), Itamar Rabinovich states that the Israeli government has two political options – progress along the Syrian track or progress along the Palestinian one – and that a discreet clarification with Syria would enable it to decide which option is preferable. In my view, progress along the Syrian track is in any case preferable to progress along the Palestinian one at this time, for several reasons.
First, the way things look today, the prospects for solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are not promising. The Palestinian political scene is in crisis. The Hamas government cannot control Palestinian society because of its struggle with Fatah, which is challenging its authority. The dispute between Hamas and Fatah is not just political; it is also ideological, touching on fundamental issues such as recognition of Israel and the willingness to negotiate openly with it. As long as Hamas – which represents at least 40 percent of the Palestinian electorate – refuses to negotiate with Israel, the chances of Israel conducting serious talks with the Palestinians are slim. Although Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is trying his best to convey a willingness to enter into a dialogue with Israel, apparently his ability to control and influence Palestinian society and politics is limited. Thus, it must be concluded that any political initiatives regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might fail because of internal rivalries and rifts within the Palestinian camp – irrespective of the Israeli government's readiness to make concessions.
The second reason for preferring the Syrian track is the fact that a peace treaty with Damascus would help Israel deal more effectively with the heart of the problem: the conflict with the Palestinians. A treaty with Syria, which would likely lead to a major breakthrough in Israeli-Lebanese relations, would close the circle of Israel's conflict with its neighbors and help improve its relations with Arab states, in the outer circle. If that happens, the Palestinians would be isolated and, naturally, weaker, vis-a-vis Israel.
The third reason for preferring the Syrian track is that it would affect, directly or indirectly, Syria's relations with Iran and Hezbollah. Since Syria is a major player in the axis of radical states in the region, its removal or increased distance from it would necessarily weaken the axis. Some experts estimate that talks with Syria would not necessarily distance it from Iran or Hezbollah; however, practically speaking, it seems reasonable to assume that Syria's participation in diplomatic talks with Israel, European countries and perhaps even the United States would affect its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah.
The fourth reason for preferring the Syrian track is that a political solution vis-a-vis Syria appears less complicated than a political solution in the Palestinian track. Most of the components of a peace settlement were discussed in secret talks in the 1990s and only a few issues (the final boundaries of the Israeli withdrawal, the Sea of Galilee issue and the early-warning installations) have not yet been worked out. However, they can be solved with some creative thinking. A solution in the Palestinian track is more complex because of the refugee question, the Jerusalem problem and the need to contend with a tough ideological core of settlers.
To what extent is Syria prepared to dialogue with Israel? The signals Damascus is sending out apparently indicate a willingness to initiate dialogue. The motive behind this readiness might not be the "right one" – that is, a willingness to recognize Israel – and may rather be the need to deal with various challenges in the regional and international spheres. Nevertheless, the reasons that would bring Syria to the negotiating table are of interest to historians, not to decision-makers. The late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, launched his peace initiative not because he recognized Zionist claims, but rather because of his domestic political and economic difficulties.
Like the talks with the Palestinians in the previous decade, the negotiations with Syria could collapse. However, if the Israeli government embarks on this dialogue with sufficient determination, and on the assumption that there really is a partner on the other side, the prospects of success exceed the risk.
The writer heads the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.