Syria, Israel Must Give to Get

There is no escaping the conclusion that the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit in Geneva has significantly reduced the chance of a Syrian-Israeli accord. What the Syrian president could not deliver in person to Bill Clinton, he will not likely deliver through surrogates. The position of each side is now clear, and the time is approaching to take or leave a deal. The main source of hope now is that the parties will seriously address the consequences of failure: Both Syria and Israel stand to pay a higher price than the costs of the concessions necessary for a deal.

The parties have come as far as they have only because they are assisted by a U.S. president who has made their issue his own. If a deal does not happen by the summer, it will not happen at all. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has set Israel on an irreversible course: withdrawal from Lebanon by July, with or without an agreement. Such a move could have grave consequences for both sides.

For Israel, the costs of unilateral withdrawal could be high. First, Israel’s northern border will be even more exposed to Hezbollah and other militias. Israel could make Lebanon’s life miserable if attacks commence across the border, but the recent past shows double misery is not a solution.

The second problem is even more consequential. For years, Israel’s message to the Arab world has been that it will never give in to violence, and that peace will come only through negotiations. But the message of unilateral Israeli withdrawal will not be lost: Israel would be pulling out unconditionally in the face of violence by but a few hundred fighters. This message could have serious ramifications for the Palestinian track, where six years of negotiations have so far borne but limited fruits. If negotiations stall, Palestinian militants will exploit the Lebanon example.

For Syria, the consequences could also be grave. If the prospect of peace dims, Israeli retaliation against attacks from Lebanon would likely include Syrian forces there. What the outcome of such an escalation would be is unknown, but neither side could possibly crave such an escalation.

These costs of failure must be weighed against the remaining concessions from both sides. Syrian and Israeli negotiators would do well to learn from the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Issues that seemed grave in a situation of conflict turned out to be relatively minor after an accord was struck. Negotiating the exact number of Egyptian forces allowed in the Sinai, for example, seemed a critical issue. Today, Egyptian forces in the Sinai are less than half of what the treaty actually permits. Disagreements over a small strip of land at Taba derailed an agreement early; today, Taba has become an Egyptian tourist attraction for Israelis.

The events of recent weeks show that the Israeli public understands the costs of failure. Even as the prospects of agreement with Syria dimmed recently, a new public opinion poll shows that, for the first time, a substantial Israeli majority supports withdrawing from the Golan Heights, including dismantling Jewish settlements there—a key Syrian demand. And as the rhetoric escalated in Syria and Lebanon against Mr. Barak’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, the odd message was that Syria and Lebanon insist on “peace agreements” with the Jewish state—something that Israel always demanded. Syrian and Israeli leaders must not let such an opportunity escape.