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Why Negotiate When Nothing Is 'Relevant'? : Mideast: Syria's refusal to discuss Israeli concerns, such as terrorism, makes hash of the peace process.

January 22, 1992|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington

Just before the most recent negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors adjourned in Washington, the head of the Syrian delegation, Mouffac Allaf, complained to reporters that the parties were "repeating themselves." The Israelis, he said, "continue to bring up subjects that we consider as irrelevant." The net result, according to Allaf, was a frustrating and counterproductive dialogue of the deaf, caused by Israeli insistence on the discussion of these extraneous issues.

A member of the Israeli team negotiating with the Syrians had a rather different view of the situation. There were indeed, he said, four issues on which the Israelis had asked for clarification, so that the negotiations could proceed in a reasonable fashion.

The first was the question of Israel's right to exist, irrespective of the final disposition of borders. Did Syria acknowledge this right, even if it referred to a state composed of "one synagogue in Tel Aviv and a few meters of ground around it" (as Mohammad Heikal, an adviser to Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, once defined his leader's understanding of U.N. Resolution 242)?

The question was not rhetorical. No Syrian has ever signed an agreement with Israel (an Egyptian general signed the 1974 disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights). And Syria has continually attached reservations to the international agreements it signs, declaring that its signature does not "constitute a recognition of Israel" and will not "lead to any kind of intercourse with it." But did Allaf assure his Israeli negotiating partners that they were in fact partners? No. This was, evidently, "irrelevant."

The second issue had to do with the outcome of the current negotiations. Did the Syrians agree with the Israelis that the desired outcome was a peace treaty (as President Bush had stipulated in Madrid last October). No. "Peace is a state of mind," said the chief Syrian negotiator (who seems to have been spending some of his leisure time in New Age bookstores). The question of a treaty was "irrelevant."

The third issue involved atmospherics, but in a special sense. Did the Syrians agree with the principle, well-established in international law, that negotiations should not be held when one party was under duress--in this case, the duress of continuing terrorist attacks whose linkage to Syria is beyond dispute (not least because terrorist leaders freely announce their intentions in Damascus, and are reported to be doing so in the controlled Syrian press)?

What terrorism, came the Syrian response; these are not terrorists, these are "freedom fighters." Well, what about Iranians training and sending terrorists to mount cross-border raids into Galilee (that is, pre-1967 Israel) from bases in the Syrian-controlled and -occupied Bekaa Valley of Lebanon? We know nothing of these, said the chief Syrian negotiator--after refusing to accept an Israeli document listing incidents and their perpetrators in great detail. The issue was "irrelevant."

Finally, there was the matter of 4,000 Syrian Jews and the willingness of the Assad government to let them emigrate. Said the Syrians: What is this business about Syrian Jews? The very fact that you talk about Syrian "Jews" proves that you are racists. But it is not our concern alone, replied the Israelis; what about the U.S. Congress' resolution urging you to let them go? "It is none of Congress' business," said the chief Syrian negotiator. The issue was "irrelevant."

There are other things the Syrians evidently consider "irrelevant." Common courtesies, for example: No member of the Syrian delegation ever responds to such minimal greetings as "Good morning" from a member of the Israeli team. Nor will the Syrians engage in the usual back-and-forth over the coffee pot during breaks in the talks. That, too, is "irrelevant."

The Madrid conference last October raised the world's hopes that a modicum of rationality and civility would characterize the new "peace process." And it is no small thing that Israelis and Syrians are sitting at the same table for the first time. But after two rounds of post-Madrid negotiations, the Syrian position seems clear. It is to negotiate nothing, but to wait, and wait, and wait, until American pressure "delivers" what Syria wants, the return of the Golan Heights to the status quo ante 1967. Any issue besides that is "irrelevant."

But if this pattern of Syrian intransigence continues, the real question will be whether the entire Israeli-Syrian negotiation is "irrelevant" to anything that could properly be described as "peace" in the Middle East.

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