Eye on the Middle East Apr/May 2000

Who’s on First.” That famous comedy routine by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had audiences in an uproar trying to figure out who was where on the baseball diamond. The same might be said about the current round of peace talks between the U.S., Syria, and Israel.

It seems that a plan a day is being whipped out of the White House, thrown back from Jerusalem, and called “foul” by the Syrians. Nobody seems to know who’s pitching, who’s batting, or who’s catching.

A prime example was the recent revelation of a secret agreement that would have ceded Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, complete with fishing rights. It went like this: In exchange for its good behavior, Syria would receive the entire Golan, access to the Sea of Galilee, and $15 billion in economic aid from the United States.

Israel’s President Ehud Barak reportedly said, “I believe we have enough here to achieve final peace.” Others, however, said, “Not so fast.” In a rare show of solidarity, the dovish Israeli leader, Shimon Peres, echoed the sentiments of former opposition party Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir in opposing the plan. Peres said the Syrians must not be allowed to share the Sea of Galilee with Israel.

A storm of protest over the proposal arose immediately in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. A member of the opposition introduced a bill that would have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have gotten the deal approved. Barak’s ruling coalition received a heavy blow when three of his coalition partners defected to vote with the opposition. The prime minister attempted to remain optimistic and said that by the time details were finalized, the Knesset would see things his way.

In spite of Barak’s put-on-a-good-face optimism, he faces serious problems in his quest to forge a peace agreement with Syria. Meanwhile, Hafez al-Assad, the reclusive Syrian president, is sitting tight in the dugout, demanding virtually everything and agreeing to concede little more than a frigid acknowledgment that Israel is a fact of life in the Middle East.

Then there is the matter of Barak’s campaign promise to put the situation to the Israeli electorate in a referendum before any agreement is finalized. With each passing day, chances of success on this front seem less likely. Israelis vividly remember what life was like before 1987, when Syria possessed the Golan, and Syrian gunners routinely shot and harassed every Israeli farmer and fisherman they sighted from their positions high above Israeli territory. For these Israelis, taking the Syrians at their word is a giant leap in the dark. Compounding their worries is the fact that Assad plans to stay in Lebanon, which he regards as a part of “Greater Syria.” So far, the Syrian leader still has not bridled the Hizballah terrorists who continue to operate with his blessing from South Lebanon.

All these facts are causing some to wonder aloud if the Barak coalition can continue as a viable government. In any event, the haggling is sure to continue over what peace, if any, can be made between Israel and Syria.

So who’s on first? No one knows. As it turns out, the last deal was a passed ball. It seems there’s a lot of pitching— but No one is doing the catching.

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