To the Editor:

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has not misread Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, as Henry Siegman suggests ("Being Hafiz al-Assad," May/June 2000). Barak is aware that Assad remains an anachronistic pan-Arabist who has not caught up with modern realities better understood by those Assad disdains: Palestine Liberation Organization Chair Yasir Arafat, the late King Hussein of Jordan, and the visionary Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt.

The ailing Assad wants his legacy to be steadfastness against concessions in the name of Arab honor. Although aware of Assad's rigidity, Barak hoped to be more successful in peacemaking than his predecessors by creating the widest possible coalition government. That, along with his strong electoral mandate, would make possible the concessions required for peace with Syria -- but not without reciprocity.

Siegman attributes the recent stall in negotiations to the leaking of American peace proposals that embarrassed Assad and to Barak's decision not to publicize Israel's agreement to withdraw to the 1967 border until he could show skeptical Israelis what they would get from Assad in return. To make peace with Syria, Barak needs his coalition to stay intact. Therefore, he is in no position to conduct secret diplomacy or depend on "creative U.S. diplomacy." Leaking the American draft let Israelis, who are correctly suspicious of Assad, know Assad's real intentions. Most Israelis doubt that Assad wants peace and suspect he is angling for U.S. support to modernize his ailing army.

Barak has committed himself to a referendum on a peace agreement with Syria. Already, Likud leader Ariel Sharon is organizing opposition to the referendum, which will probably be based on a majority of the entire population, not a majority of those who vote that day. Barak understands that only a broad coalition government could persuade the nation to vote to withdraw from the Golan Heights and return to the 1967 border with Syria.


Professor of Political Science, American University