JERUSALEM — More than a year ago, guided by the conviction that Israel would rather be criticized than eulogized, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to cut the solemn diplomatic nonsense. The diplomatic course offered to Israel was a blind alley in a dark neighborhood, and we considered it both futile and risky. It is widely accepted now that Israel was correct in insisting that certain fundamentals be preserved.
The United States should be commended for adopting a new diplomacy that excludes the murderous Palestine Liberation Organization from the process, and for insisting that the Arab countries engage in open, free, direct negotiations with Israel on a bilateral basis, withoutprior conditions set on the beginning of the talks.
Over the last 24 years, three tiers have been laid in the building of peace between the Arab and Jewish nations. First, in 1967, came U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which affirmed the principles for an ambience of peace and is open to a variety of interpretations. Then, in 1973, with Resolution 338, the Security Council urged that "negotiations start between the parties concerned, under appropriate auspices."
The third tier is of the utmost importance, as it is highly specific and detailed. It was laid in 1978 by Israel, Egypt and the United States at Camp David as the "Framework for Peace in the Middle East." The preamble contains the essentials in a nutshell, as follows: "The parties are determined to reach a just, comprehensive and durable settlement of the Middle East conflict through the conclusion of peace treaties based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 in all their parts . . . this framework as appropriate is intended by them to constitute a basis for peace . . . between Israel and each of its other neighbors which is prepared to negotiate peace with Israel on this basis."
So here we are, ready as ever to proceed under these clear and rigorous guidelines. But do we have a partner? At this moment, my answer is "maybe." Syrian President Hafez Assad has apparently grasped the international realities and drawn the conclusion that he should seek reconciliation with the only remaining superpower--the United States. He is ready to pay the minimum possible political price for that. The question is, how great is that minimum?
Amazing as it may sound, we do not know. Thus far, the United States has failed to share with the government of Israel the clarifications of its position that it gave to Syria and the actual Syrian response. Assad's foreign minister claimed last month that the United States had confidentially assured Syria that it would pressure Israel to withdraw to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. Sharing such communications with Israel, or making them public, would have quickly established the truth of this assertion, which now has been denied by the American ambassador to Israel and by Assad.
If negotiations ultimately start, we shall embark on a road paved with cobbles and boulders, crossed by ditches and hurdles. It is inconceivable that we walk that road blindfolded. The attempt to substitute "constructive ambiguity" with "constructive darkness" simply won't work, because conflicting "clarifications" would arise down the road. Therefore, all relevant documents must be transparent to all parties concerned.
We are told that Syria agreed to participate in direct bilateral negotiations with Israel, but we have not been informed of its specific goal. The traditional Syrian position has been that even after they retrieve the whole of the Golan plateau, they would not sign a peace treaty with Israel and would not exchange ambassadors. They would only be good enough to announce a state of nonbelligerency, which falls far short of peace and is scarcely different from an armistice.
When pointedly asked last week, in a Washington Post interview, whether Syria would ever be ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Assad significantly refused to answer affirmatively, instead mumbling something about U.N. resolutions. Obviously, from the Syrian point of view, "nonbelligerency" satisfies Resolution 242's call for a "comprehensive peace," but this interpretation is simply not good enough. "Constructive clarity" is urgently needed here, and the conclusion of a peace treaty must be defined as the goal of negotiations.