With the Hafez Assad round of Syrian-Israeli negotiations now permanently defunct, it's time for a little retrospective. During the final burst of diplomacy, lasting from December 1999 until March 2000, Western academics, journalists, and politicians made a lot of wrong-headed predictions that are worth scrutiny, for they contain some useful lessons.
Informed opinion in Israel and the West agreed that the Syrian regime had decided on peace with Israel; only the details remained to be worked out. "Peace is vital for Assad," wrote Hirsh Goodman, a former columnist for this paper, and almost everyone agreed.
Reuters helpfully listed the three most commonly cited reasons why Assad needed to end the conflict with Israel: his ill-health and the need to pave the way for son Bashar, the Syrian economy's extreme weakness, and the humiliation of seeing the Golan Heights remain in Israeli hands. President Clinton looking for a legacy was also sometimes cited.
The start of negotiations in December inspired an orgy of optimistic prognostications. Peace is "within our grasp," Clinton averred. Itamar Rabinovich, perhaps Israel's foremost authority on Syria, deemed the renewal of talks "the most auspicious moment yet for reaching an Israeli-Syrian accommodation." Israel's ambassador in Washington declared himself "an optimist" that the talks would resolve the Syrian-Israeli dispute. Minister Haim Ramon boldly announced that the government was "embarking on negotiations that will bring total peace" with the Arabs and "the complete acceptance by the entire Arab world that Israel can exist in the region in peace and security." Israeli businessmen spoke of opening factories in Syria and chamber-of-commerce types anticipated a big post-treaty spike in economic growth.
This good cheer persisted even after the talks broke down in early January. Undeterred, Clinton confidently announced that Assad and Prime Minister Ehud Barak both "want a peace that meets each other's needs." Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine of France more cautiously told of being "reasonably optimistic." Some venturous souls specified just when an agreement would be reached.
Rabinovich predicted in December that Assad "must have calculated that peace must be made within the next few months." "A matter of months," echoed Barak.
Osama al-Baz, a high Egyptian official involved with Arab-Israeli diplomacy since 1974, longer than anyone else, was a bit more vague, predicting "several months and perhaps a year before reaching a peace accord." Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, another veteran observer, weighed in similarly: "Both sides are committed to achieving a comprehensive peace this year." "This year definitely," King Abdullah II of Jordan concurred.
It's striking to note that these embarrassing predictions are part of a well-established pattern. Back in August 1994, for instance, Fawaz Gerges of Princeton University prophesied that "a breakthrough in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks is imminent." The Arabic press was even more specific, reporting that Damascus and Jerusalem would achieve "palpable progress" by the end of 1994. In 1995, France's President Jacques Chirac publicly predicted that an Israel-Syria agreement would be signed by the end of 1995, as did his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak. The same faulty predictions have been repeated almost every year since, up until the moment of Assad's death.
In short, almost without exception for six years, authoritative voices ignored evident signs of Syrian recalcitrance and persisted in predicting that the Syrian-Israeli talks would culminate in a signed peace agreement.
When nearly everyone in the know gets it wrong, and does so year after year, what conclusions should one draw?
First, beware the herd mentality. Just because almost everyone agrees what's about to happen, that's no reason that it will. Don't be afraid to speak your mind, especially about the future, even when in a tiny minority.
Second, hold political analysts accountable for their forecasts. When a company's earnings fail to match expectations, heads roll. But in politics, wretched predictions hardly count. To fix this, the media should keep track of who says what, tote up the score every so often, and (as with mutual fund managers) listen to those with a track record of getting it right.
Third, listen with due skepticism when politicians and others make prophecies. For instance, Barak has asserted that if the talks with Syria failed, there would be "no way out of another round of confrontation with the Arab world." Well, maybe. And maybe Israel's holding the Golan decreases the chances for war.