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Mediterranean Quarterly 11.4 (2000) 117-139

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The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations

R. Reuben Miller

For a short while, in midsummer 2000, hope emanated from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations held in Camp David. Between 11 and 24 July 2000, under the auspices of President Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chairman Yasser Arafat met for a summit in an effort to reach a peace accord on permanent relations between the two nations. While they were not able to bridge the gap, their negotiations were unprecedented in nature, scope, and details. By far, these negotiations overshadowed another track in the Middle East peace process, the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, but some find similarities between the two tracks.

The sudden death of the Syrian president Hafiz al-Assad on 10 June 2000 ended for the time being the prospects for renewed peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. Negotiations had come to a standstill in January 2000, and even President Clinton's efforts to sway Assad in March 2000 failed to resuscitate the peace process. These two countries again find themselves where they often have been; the stalemate seems like déjà vu all over again.

Israeli and Syrian diplomats have met on numerous occasions in the past decade. The first encounter was in 1991 at the Madrid Conference, where Yitzhak Shamir headed the Israeli delegation. In 1994 and 1995, the Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin negotiated with the Syrians, and in early 1996, Shimon Peres and Uri Savir met with and tried to reach an agreement with the Syrians. Similar efforts were made in Washington with the active participation of the same Syrian representative, namely Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shaara. On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin [End Page 117] Netanyahu led the delegation this time. In December 1999 and early 2000, Prime Minister Barak came to Washington to negotiate with the Syrians. Thereafter he made several trips to the United States to meet with President Clinton and other American officials. Al-Shaara always headed the Syrian delegation at these meetings. On a couple of occasions, back in July 1994 and again in March 2000, Clinton and Assad met in Geneva. At other times, the Syrian leader met with U.S. secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright and other diplomats. These meetings and negotiations accomplished very little--some procedural understanding and a review of working documents. Why? Does it all boil down to simply one issue, namely, Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights? Moreover, how can we explain the apparent disparity and discrepancy between the Israeli and Syrian positions?

There have been many attempts to explain the gap between these positions. They focused on domestic politics as well as regional and strategic maneuvers and considerations. However, analysts have emphasized two substantive themes: security and peace. These two central themes have not changed over time, and they include a host of thorny issues such as crafting security arrangements, drawing border lines, and normalizing relations. Issues abound concerning free trade, tourism, water rights, refugees, settlements, and economics and finance.

In this essay I suggest that the negotiating parties address the issues in the context of a zero-sum game. Accordingly, the proposition is, if you do not win, you lose, and losing is so complete that it is to be avoided at all costs. To complicate matters, the disparity between Israeli and Syrian positions is compounded by cultural communication challenges. 1 In this zero-sum game framework, the Israelis approach the process with a Western orientation rooted in core values such as pragmatism, serial progression, and rationality. The Israelis view negotiations as problem-solving meetings. Hence, they have addressed the issues by mustering factual data, resorting to "objective reality" through systematic observations, relying on linear progression, and [End Page 118] tending to focus on the future as an extension of the present. On the other hand, the Syrian approach is rooted in core values of courage, honor, dignity, and self-respect. The Syrian orientation is more holistic and focuses on the totality of the historical context behind the immediate issues. Thus, the Syrians do not make...


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