We were in a state of shock when Syrian President Bashar Al Assad personally announced that direct negotiation [with Israel] is more beneficial than indirect talks to achieve peace.
I had to look twice at what I was reading, not because Syria wants to negotiate directly, but due to the timing of this statement, which comes less than one month before US President-elect Barack Obama is set to enter the White House, and also prior to the Israeli elections whose candidates hold extremist viewpoints.
As for actually sitting down with Israel, this issue has not been on the table since the Madrid Conference in 1991, and the subsequent official public and direct talks [between Israel and Syria].
It is clear that the Syrian president intended to use the presence of the Croatian President [Stepan Mesic] to hold a press conference and pass on the political message that Syria is no longer afraid of direct negotiation [with Israel]. As we know, until now Turkey has been playing the role of mediator with regards to indirect negotiation between Israel and Syria.
The Syrian leadership, which is known for its stubbornness and rejection, is more flexible today, while the Israeli candidate most likely to win the Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu, is also known for his similar stubborn and intractable reputation, and who [it seems] wishes to negotiate with Syria on the future of the Golan Heights. Rumor has it that he [Netanyahu] is ready for peace with Syria and is ready to restore the occupied Golan Heights, in what would be an advanced political position from an extremist prime minister, if this proves to be true.
The fact is that it does not matter [to us] who governs Israel, whether a hawk or a dove; what matters is his or her negotiating potential. If [this future leader] wants incomplete peace that only includes part of the Golan Heights, or all of the Golan Heights without a Palestinian state, or a Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem for example, then it is better [that such peace] is not even set in motion, as it would only mean deepening and complicating the crisis.
And who knows, Netanyahu, the hawk today, may become a dove of peace [tomorrow] amongst the Israelis, although this is uncertain due to the frequency of his negative positions.
As for Syria, it is in a difficult position because its commitment to peace is being questioned, and it has also been accused of being the mastermind behind the ruin of all Lebanese-Israeli negotiation. We must understand the Syrian viewpoint that is not expressed in newspapers or broadcast publicly. The Syrians say, quietly, that they have never been made an offer [by the Israelis] that deserves consideration. The one opportunity [for peace] that they were offered was during Bill Clinton’s presidency. They accepted the offer at the Geneva Summit , but the Israelis reneged on the deal saying that due to the deteriorating health of the Syrian President [Hafiz Al Assad] at the time, they preferred to wait and see the policies of his successor.
It is true that the Syrians are in a difficult position, and they have certainly thrown away all peace projects over the past thirty years. They attempted to sabotage the Camp David summit, and although they failed in that regard they were able to initiate a smear campaign that affected the popularity of the Egyptian regime. They also had remarkable success at corrupting all Palestinian agreements, from the Oslo Accords to the Roadmap for Peace, and easily prevented the Lebanese from becoming involved in negotiations or peace.
The reason [for this] is that they refuse to accept any peace that comes at their own expense. The Syrians are against ending the Lebanese-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, as this would lead to a blockade against them and the strategic military empowerment of Israel on both land and sea. This same [Syrian] fear was the cause of a dispute between late President Hafiz Al Assad and late President Yasser Arafat when Arafat was negotiating [for peace] in the 90s. The former Syrian president saw that his country, after the implementation of every agreement, would be put at risk of becoming the weak target in the conflict with Israel. [This fear] has made Syria a centre of disruption [to peace].
Today Damascus is ready to negotiate in the new era, or so it seems.