It remains unclear what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak meant when he stated that the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had created a new Middle East. Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon chose a more direct approach when he expressed hope that Bashar al-Assad, who has been named to replace his father, would prove more flexible.
Putting aside his reputation with Israel and the United States as being inflexible, Hafez al-Assad's firm demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights in accordance with UN Resolution 242 should be regarded as both rational and legitimate. Wishing for " a more flexible" Bashar, to initiate " a new Middle East," by Israeli standards appears to reflect Israel's skewed view of an ideal peace settlement. It is their hope Bashar will accept what his father renounced for years: an incomplete pullout from the Golan Heights.
The U.S. is very clear on what it expects from the Syrians. Strangely enough, the opening of the economy and democratization have become of little relevance to the United States, the so-called 'champion of democracy' and promoter of economic globalization. Its main concern instead is Syria normalizing its relations with Israel, solely based on Israel's terms and timing.
The sympathy shown by the U.S. Administration for the death of Assad, including U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's brief funeral mission demonstrates an eagerness on the part of the Americans to recruit Bashar into the peace camp.
For two decades Hafez al-Assad maintained a flow of Soviet military, and financial support to enforce Syria's socialist lines and centralized economy. It is apparent that Bashar will take the country into a new direction and the Russians are no longer a reliable source of support.
From what has been concluded from his public comments, Bashar is eager to liberalize the tightly controlled economy, advance the country's aging technology and break Syria's regional and international isolation.
However, there may be a price to pay for such improvements. Accomplishing such a maneuver, for almost any Third World country, becomes extremely hard to achieve without the support of the United States. The U.S. has refused to do business with Syria in the past because of its so-called state sponsorship of terrorism.
In order for this American label to be revoked, Syria is expected to adopt a different approach when dealing with Israel, different enough that would categorize Syria as one of the region's "peace loving nations," from an American standpoint, at least.
Israel, a master at playing the political waiting game, now has one more reason to proceed with its manipulative obstruction of a full Golan Heights pullout. The recent turmoil in the Israeli government which caused Barak to consider a serious shifting of ministers and new alliances, strips Barak from the power to accelerate peace talks with Syria. The political instability within Israel, will remain a constant reminder for Barak that no real consolidation of power can be truly achieved in multi-party governments.
Both the U.S. and Israeli governments would like us to believe that the ball is Syria's court. The truth however, is that the ball has been with Israel for years. It seems that the Syrians are little interested in considering any other issue than the recovery of their illegally seized land. And even if Barak has enough courage to honor international law, his weakening position in Israel hardens his mission.
Bashar's future challenge to boost Syria's ailing economy while standing by his father's insistence of the return of stolen land, will truly allow him to determine a "new Middle East."