Barak’s mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, was reluctant to pursue two peace tracks at once, but Barak has made it clear he has no such misgivings. In the Sharm e-Sheik agreement with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, he succeeded in setting an ambitious timetable for concluding the erratic Oslo process by next September. But no matter how many times Barak tried to coax Hafez al-Assad back into the friendly waters of the Madrid process, the Syrian dictator appeared uninterested. That is, on the surface. But behind the scenes, American interlocutors were set to spring a "December surprise."
In this double issue of the Middle East Digest, we trace the recent events which led to the abrupt renewal of Israel-Syria talks, and the impact it has had on the Israeli public and on the lagging Palestinian track. It is important to note, first of all, a common interest in each set of talks - the involvement of US President Bill Clinton. Neither Barak, Arafat nor Assad have hidden the fact that they hope to seal deals before Clinton leaves office one year from now. The parties all recognize his personal yearning to salvage a tarnished presidential legacy with a trophy in Mideast peace-making, and they each hope to use it to their advantage. But they also realize time is short, as Clinton’s effectiveness will wane by mid-summer when the battle over his replacement heats up in America.
With Clinton’s political time clock ticking away, the competition among Arafat and Assad for his attention and support is intense, which strains the traditional rivalry between the aging despots. The two have clashed constantly since each came to power soon after the 1967 Six-Day War. Assad once evicted Arafat from Syria, and sent troops to drive PLO forces out of coveted areas of Lebanon. The embedded enmity boiled over recently when Arafat gave a red carpet welcome in Gaza to Assad’s estranged nephew Sumer - a contender for the throne in Damascus. Assad returned the favor by foiling Arafat’s efforts to create a united front with the "confrontation states" - Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria - soon after Barak’s election. Few doubt Assad is still smarting from Arafat’s decision to break from the Arab pack and seek a separate deal with Israel in secret at Oslo, leaving Assad to fend alone.
But Assad has made up ground in recent weeks, leaving the Palestinians eyeing with envy the deep US involvement which quickly produced a "working document" to facilitate progress in the Israel-Syria talks. Each wants to be at the head of the line of Israeli concession-making, and Arafat is now pleading for Clinton - and Barak - to be fully engaged in their talks as well.
While Barak arguably derives benefits from the dual track approach, juggling the competing peace tracks is proving difficult for US mediators. The Clinton team is hoping each track will stick to tight time schedules so that peace treaties can be signed before the end of his presidency. But at some point, US officials suggest Clinton likely will decide to concentrate on the one track that seems most susceptible to grand compromises and swift conclusion.
The dual track approach ostensibly allows Barak to play Arafat and Assad against each other, knowing they currently are incapable of coordinating positions. While Barak gains an advantage by warning one side or the other they might get left behind, he is also being criticized even by members of his Cabinet for not delegating responsibility - insisting on managing both sets of intense, detailed negotiations. One Israeli commentator noted that recent events show "Barak is not omnipotent... A breakthrough on the Syrian track put the Palestinian channel into a coma from which it is only now emerging."
More importantly, Barak - who has promised national referendums on any final deals with Assad or Arafat - will have trouble selling the Israeli public on absorbing too many territorial amputations at once. For them, the question is whether their ambitious leader is indeed up to the task, or has he set them on a collision course if he stumbles somewhere along the tandem of perilous peace tracks.