Why, after eight years of on-and-off talks, has no agreement been signed by Syria and Israel? In contrast, the peace treaty with Jordan was dispatched in a few months. Even the Palestinian track has produced six agreements in as many years.
There are two opposite ways to explain this state of affairs. The optimistic explanation is that Assad has made a strategic decision for peace with Israel but can't quite get there.
Moshe Maoz, the Hebrew University's specialist on Syria, argues that already in 1988 Assad had resolved "to reach a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict" - political, that is, not military.
Itamar Rabinovich, Tel Aviv University's specialist on Syria and Israel's chief negotiator with Syria in the years 1992-96, agrees. He holds that throughout this time Assad wanted agreements with Israel and that the two states reached "the brink of peace."
But if Assad decided more than a decade ago to reach a political settlement with Israel, why has he nothing to show for it? Maoz explains that "Assad was taken aback by the Oslo accord," which harmed his bargaining position.
Rabinovich sees Assad conducting himself "as if time were no constraint" and wasting a precious opportunity. Others account for the lack of progress by pointing to the Syrian despot's misunderstanding of Israeli democracy, his inability to swallow his pride as an Arab nationalist, or his age and infirmity.
In the end, though, optimists can't account for Assad's actions and sometimes acknowledge that. Rabinovich's account of the 1992-96 negotiations is peppered with phrases like "We were deeply puzzled," "It is difficult to understand Assad's conduct," and "Many of Assad's decisions during this period have yet to be fully explained."
Then there is the pessimistic explanation. It assumes that Assad has not reconciled himself to ending the conflict with Israel, that he views the negotiations as merely tactical moves to protect his country at a moment of weakness.
In this reading, Assad's agreement to talk with his Israeli enemy does not imply anything more than that. Pessimists easily account for the lack of progress in more than eight years: Assad has no intention of reaching an agreement with Israel.
It's not that he's too slow or ignorant or old but that he's using the negotiations for a specific purpose: to improve his position vis-à-vis the West. (How often have American secretaries of state visited Baghdad or Teheran in recent years?)
Assuming that Assad has no intention of signing an agreement sweeps away the puzzlements about his behavior and shows how his supposed miscalculations are actually canny decisions.
These differences in analysis keep popping up. When, last week, Damascus abruptly announced it would return to the bargaining table only if Israel agreed in advance to grant its most major demand (about moving the border back to where it was on June 4, 1967), the optimists found new excuses.
The regime is displaying its toughness to the Syrian public. The document leaked to Ha'aretz put Assad's nose out of joint. The presence of Yasser Arafat in Washington prompted him to keep his foreign minister home.
But these are unconvincing trivialities. It makes far more sense to see the latest Syrian demand as another signal that Assad has no intention of reaching a deal with the Israelis. This was confirmed further by the brusque and even insulting way the Syrian demands were made.
Let's consider a parallel from science: For millennia, people assumed the earth was stationary and that the sun moved around it. As they learned more about the heavens, this explanation became ever-more difficult to reconcile with observed movements of the solar system. To account for the apparent loops that planets were making, astronomers had to devise intricate explanations.
Then, in one fell swoop, Nicholas Copernicus eliminated this problem. By positing the earth in orbit around the sun, he wiped away all the complexities. Simplicity and elegance have reigned since.
It's time for a Copernican revolution with regard to Syria. Why cling to the optimists' convoluted and unconvincing explanations when the pessimists can account so simply for what's happening?