Israel's preeminent Syria expert, Moshe Ma'oz, famously dubbed that country's former leader Hafaz al-Assad "the Sphinx of Damascus" in his political biography of that title, an inscrutable man, impossible to decipher. Almost ten years into office, his son and successor Bashar al-Assad has yet to have collected too many nick-names but his ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was anything but sphinx-like in openly embracing the peace process and setting forth a challenge to both the new Israeli and America governments on Fareed Zakaria's GPS show yesterday. Zakaria's hour of thoughtful policy discourse on CNN has become for me one of the few things worth watching on a Sunday.
Ambassador Moustapha surprised many yesterday and made headlines in Israel when he countered Fareed Zakaria's skepticism that progress on peace would be possible given the new Likud-Lieberman government in Jerusalem by suggesting that, "It's better to deal with someone like Lieberman than someone like Livni - Lieberman is candid and says what he believes," which he contrasted to Livni and colleagues talking peace while making war, notably in Gaza. This is an interesting position to take not least from a senior Syrian representative and contrasts to what many others in the Arab world have been arguing - it also seems to me more realistic and constructive especially given the lead peacemaking role that Moustapha penciled in for the Obama administration. Perhaps even subconsciously, Syria seems to be sending the message - you want to make peace, deal with the bad guys, whichever side they are on (and that might as much be a self-reflective comment as it is a critique of Israel's new leadership).
Ambassador Moustapha did not have an easy time in Washington for the last years of the Bush administration. He would sometimes joke that he was the closest thing DC had to an ambassador of the Axis of Evil and was treated as such. But he stuck around and reached out to whoever was willing to listen, notably to some of the key players in Congress on both the Democrat and Republican sides, a number of whom visited Damascus in recent years. Judging by his performance yesterday, Moustapha seems to be suggesting that now is the time to shift Syrian public diplomacy toward the US up by several gears. In responding to Zakaria's question about the Obama election victory and how it was received in Syria, the ambassador stressed that, "America has vindicated herself... after eight terrible years," describing how the ordinary Syrian was, "overjoyed."
The ambassador's headline-generating readiness, even eagerness, to negotiate peace with a Likud-Lieberman government and his preference for them as a negotiating partner over Livni and co. is something that one can understand and even partially agree with. Again, the implicit message at least is almost to be saying - 'everyone always criticizes our regime, while the Israeli side are no teddy bears now either, so let's just get over it, take a hard look at everyone's key interests, including America's, and get on with the serious business of getting a deal.
Indeed, Avigdor Lieberman and what he represents is not really Syria's problem or even America's - he is primarily Israel's problem (although given that the America-Israel relationship is to some degree based on shared values, a Lieberman reality in Israel is not a simple or comfortable thing). There is of course also the argument that Netanyahu is in a stronger position to deliver on a deal than the center-left would be and as PM in the late-90's, sent his personal envoy (former US ambassador Ronald Lauder) to convey messages to the Syrians of Bibi's willingness to withdraw from the Golan. Imad Moustapha told Zakaria that Syria would be ready for a similar peace deal that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan (i.e. land for security and cold peace) but would prefer for a comprehensive peace to prevail, in other words, for the Palestinian track to also be addressed thereby creating new dynamics and opportunities for relations in the region.
This contrasts with the positions that have begun to be articulated by some of the PA leadership in Ramallah and other US allies including Egypt. In public statements and op-eds, some of the Fatah-PA seems to be delighting in appearing to be the reasonable party set along-side the recalcitrant new bosses in Israel. They are suggesting that Israel meet preconditions (acknowledge two states and past agreements, freeze settlements) before negotiations can resume, and they are egging on a fight between Washington and Jerusalem.
While all that may sound fun, have a self-righteousness to it, and play well on CNN, I fail to see how it actually helps accomplish anything or how it advances an end of occupation and peace and security for both peoples. The last Israeli government continued building settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and maintained checkpoints and closures but that did not stop the Palestinians from negotiating. And even if Netanyahu, or even Lieberman for that matter, were to say those magic words - "two states" - as their predecessors have done, then would it actually bring such a reality any closer?
We seem then to be in a situation where both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships' strategies lead to a dead-end. The PA-Ramallah leadership appears eager to score points, avoid internal reconciliation, and to get back to the meaningless roadmap and Annapolis process - a path to nowhere if ever there was one. The Likud-Lieberman government thinks that economic projects can deliver a happy occupied people and be a substitute for getting to grips with the basic political realities of territory and occupation - as if this approach has not been tried and stunningly failed for the last fifteen years.
The Syrian Ambassador, and here I agree with him, seems to be suggesting something very different - no preconditions, don't be squeamish about who you talk to, a comprehensive regional peace, and most of all, get the Americans to lead and drive the process (as he put it, "a vigorous, creative role in brokering peace between Arabs and Israelis... Israel will be very careful not to say no to the American president").
This won't be easy but it seems like the right way to go given the current constellation of actors and our historical experience of the failed previous efforts that were over-reliant on bilateral negotiations. Rather than expend political capital on an argument with Netanyahu over the words "two states" or over a settlement developments in far flung corners of the West Bank, the Obama capital would be better invested in driving home a plan for peace. The US should also allow for constructive progress in the US-Syria bilateral relation even if the Israel-Syria track is in question, and that might already be happening given the visit of senior officials Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro to Damascus (even the US-Syria track will not be simple, not least given the Hariri tribunal as Jay Solomon points out but Syrian cooperation is important for American efforts in the region and there is always the Libya compromise precedent).
Two camps seem to be emerging. One is spoiling for a public spat between the new Israeli government and the Obama administration. The other is urging the Obama administration to act early and decisively to deliver a new land-for-peace deal and equilibrium in the Israeli-Arab arena that will be essential for broader regional stability. The former might tickle some people's fancy but it's the latter that is needed.