It's not the first time Israelis and Syrians have sat down to face each other across a negotiating table. But all concerned agree these talks are clearly a break from all past negotiations and that the stakes are especially high.
"What we are witnessing today is not yet peace," President Clinton said from the Rose Garden, "and getting there will require bold thinking and hard choices. But today is a big step along that path."
He is correct on all counts.
The Syrian-Israeli conflict is now more than a half-century old. And since the parties sat at the same table during the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, there have been several sets of negotiations between them, but always at lower levels. The last set of talks broke off almost four years ago.
Generals from the two sides have met, as have lower level political and diplomatic envoys. But one of the keys to the importance of the current talks is that these are meetings at the highest political level on both sides. That simply has never happened between Israel and Syria. American officials agree it was a breakthrough for Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to agree to talks where the most senior leaders will be at the negotiating table.
On Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to the Middle East last week, reporters traveling with Albright were told by a senior U. S. official that while Syria's Assad is not at the talks in Washington, "he will be intimately involved in all the decision making." And further, "there will come a time when his more direct involvement may be necessary."
President Clinton has had eight telephone conversations with Assad since July, a very high number for any foreign leader in such a short period of time.
The talks themselves, according to the senior U. S. official, will be held "at a high political level throughout." He added, "that it is not a bunch of working groups that then have an occasional visit by a Secretary of State." This is an earmark of serious diplomacy.
No one can authoritatively say why President Assad has decided to engage the Israelis in this way at this time. There is no shortage of theories. Syria is now going through a political period of transition with a 69-year-old leader who is known to want to hand over the reigns of power to his son, Dr. Bashar al-Assad. It is also widely believed President Assad wants to see the Golan Heights returned to Syria on his watch, since he was the Syrian Defense Minister when the Golan was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
Though Assad is ailing, a European diplomat based in Damascus says the Syrian president "has the ability to focus on issues that matter to him." And a senior U.S. official traveling with Secretary Albright said she found Assad clearly involved in her three-hour-long meeting and he made decisions that were clearly important."
There is one important difference between Israel and Syria to bear in mind as negotiators work their way through the issues. If and when Syria's Assad is satisfied, he can simply say, "OK," as he alone casts Syria's vote. Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, has pledged to take any deal to his people, promising a referendum on the final details.
Barak clearly understands convincing his fellow Israelis that giving up the strategically important Golan Heights and forcing 17,000 Israeli settlers to move from their homes will likely be almost as difficult as cutting a deal with leaders in Damascus who have been his implacable enemies for a lifetime.
By Charles Wolfson