A large part of what was said at that meeting was clearly intended to prepare the ground for the visit of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who arrived in Washington the following day. The Syrian representative's tongue slipped just once, when he acknowledged that Syria's peace gesture contains a poison capsule.
In order to explain the nature of this poison capsule, the context in which the remarks were made has to be explained. The Syrian representative once again declared that his country wants to improve its ties with the United States. He acknowledged that Syria enjoys good relations with all the factions in Iraq and therefore is capable of helping to achieve a political arrangement to end the civil war that is tearing the country apart. He noted that Syria also has good ties with Iran and can therefore serve as a mediator between Iran and the U.S. He complained bitterly about the Bush administration's position, which holds that there is no need for high-level talks to rebuild the ties between Syria and the U.S. He spoke of Syria's desire to hold talks without preconditions, both with the Bush administration and with Israel.
The representative added that the expected military confrontation between Israel and Syria is most distressing, since the disputed issues could be resolved through peaceful means. Nevertheless, he said, if Israel wishes war, Syria is prepared and ready. "Israel will face another surprise, like the one that awaited it in Lebanon," he cautioned.
He spoke somewhat bemusedly of the visit by the U.S. House of Representative Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to Damascus. She brought with her a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to which "Israel is ready to enter peace talks." Olmert was supposed to issue a public announcement along those lines the following day. The representative said that the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, smiled upon hearing Pelosi's words and merely said, "We'll wait and see." The next day Olmert denied having sent such a message.
The Syrian representative reiterated that Syria is willing to begin peace talks at any time without preconditions, but noted that "Israel never agreed to this, because it would create a shared border between Syria and Hamas, through which Syria could arm Hamas as it pleased." In other words, his remarks implied that the peace gestures are empty, because Syria knows they would entail a condition that Israel could not live with.
All of this seems to indicate that while Israel continues to express its desire for peace talks with Syria and for a two-state solution, it is thereby placing itself into a trap. When Israel refers to a Palestinian state, almost everyone, except for few diplomats specializing in the Middle East, thinks this refers to a truly sovereign state. Such a state would be free, of course, to import all the arms and foreign soldiers it wishes.
However, it seems that Israel is assuming that it will continue to oversee the borders of this Palestinian state, including those with Syria and Jordan, much like it oversees the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and Gaza's sea and air ports today. If that is the case, Israel will be accused of turning the Palestinian state into a prison. That is indeed how many describe Israel's current attitude to the Gaza Strip.
Therefore, when Israel resumes peace negotiations with Syria and with the Palestinians, it would do well to stop relying on sophisticated legal distinctions between autonomous territories and sovereign territories. It must make it clear that the Palestinian state that will be established in the wake of a peace arrangement will be demilitarized and that there will be a need for effective enforcement methods, such as a combination of Israeli and European patrols, in order to maintain this demilitarization. Any other peace arrangement would contain a poison capsule.
The author is a lecturer in international relations at Georgetown University.