Saturday, 28 April 2018

Little Boy Lost - a short story

                                                       "Blue eyes,,,blue like the sea..."
        You know what they say about the sea‑front at Tel Aviv. Walk along it often enough, and you're bound to meet everyone you've ever known.

        On a July afternoon in the mid‑1960s the beaches running south from Kikkar Atarim were packed. Children were scampering up and down to the sea over the blistering sand and mothers were screaming at them. The ice‑cream sellers and the life‑guards were doing a roaring trade. The scene was vivid in the brilliant sunshine – coloured umbrellas, red‑and‑yellow sun shelters, striped deck chairs. In the midst of it all a woman, not young not old, in a long‑sleeved blue dress with polka dots and a little white collar and cuffs, was gazing to left and right. 

        "My God, what am I going to do? What can I do?"

        She spoke to herself, for there was no one with her, but it chanced that the words were overheard by a fair‑haired young man in his twenties carrying a towel, who had just stepped on to the sands.

        "In some sort of trouble?" he said, for he had a kind heart. "Perhaps I can help."

        "I don't know." 

        She looked distractedly from side to side.

        "Why don't you tell me about it?" said the young man. "What's happened?"

        The woman clutched at his arm.

        "It's terrible, terrible. My little boy ‑ Danny ‑ he seems to have wandered off."

        "Wandered off? You mean, he's lost?"

        The woman nodded, and pressed both hands to her cheeks. 

        "What am I to do? Tell me what I can do."

        The young man kept his cool. 

        "He can't have gone far. When did you last see him?"

        The woman was vague. 

        "I don't quite know. I was just sitting here. Then I looked up, and he wasn't there."

        Seized by a sudden spasm of energy, she called down the beach towards the sea, her voice mingling with the cries of the children and the portable radios:

        "Danny! Danny! Where are you'?"

        "Come on," said the young man, abandoning thoughts of stripping to the bathing trunks he wore beneath his slacks and snoozing in the sun. "I'll help you look for him. What does he look like, Mrs ... ?"

        He glanced at her enquiringly.

        "Weiss," she said. "My name is Weiss. Oh, he's a most beautiful child. Soft, fair hair. Blue eyes – blue like the sea. Blue, just like yours.”

        "And how old?"

        "Four," said Mrs Weiss. "He's four years old."

        "That's very young. We must find him quickly."
        She seemed disturbed by his reaction, and her hand flew to her mouth as a new thought suddenly struck her.

        "The sea! Could he have wandered into the sea? Oh, my God!"

        The young man kept his head. 

        "Was he wearing a bathing costume?"

        "No! No, he wasn't. See – I have it here." 

        She scrabbled in a beach bag that was lying at her feet, and stood up triumphantly, holding a small pair of trunks.

        "Then he can't have gone into the sea," said the young man. "Someone's sure to have seen a little boy fully clothed going into the water."

        The thought calmed her. 

        "No, you're right. Thank heaven. But where can he be? My little baby all on his own, wandering about, lost. I can't bear to think of it." 

        Her eyes roamed the crowded, animated scene. Another possibility presented itself and she turned back to him. 

        "But perhaps he isn't on his own? Perhaps someone has taken him. Some woman baby‑snatcher. You read of things like that. Or worse ‑ some man. Dear heaven, what shall I do?"

        And again she called down the beach: "Danny! Danny!"

        "Keep calm, Mrs Weiss" said the young man. "We'll walk together along the sands, and if we don't find him we'll ask the lifeguard to make an announcement. But we'll find him, Mrs Weiss, never fear."

        The woman seemed comforted. She looked up as if seeing him for the first time.

        "You're so kind, Mr… There, I don't even know your name."

        “I'm Uri Segal," said the young man. "Call me Uri. Now let's get started. I'll look to the left, you look to the right."

        Side by side the two of them ploughed their way through the sand, the woman calling "Danny! Danny!" from time to time; the young man concentrating on isolating a tiny sole figure from among the hundreds all around. 

        By three o'clock they had scoured the beach, the lifeguard had made a fruitless announcement, and the two of them were back close to their point of departure.

        "I'm not sure there's much more I can do, Mrs Weiss," said Uri. "Shouldn't we contact your husband?"

        The woman looked at him vaguely. 

        "My husband?"

        "Danny's father," said Uri. "Where is he?"

        "Oh, I'm quite alone," said Mrs Weiss. "There's only me and Danny. You're not going to leave me now, are you, Uri?   What shall I do?"

        "There's only one thing left," said Uri. "We'll have to contact the police. Someone could have found Danny and taken him to a police station."

        “Yes, yes.” She grasped at the idea. “He may be waiting for me now, waiting for his Mummy to come and find him – his wicked, wicked Mummy, who let him wander off on his own. How could I have done it? How?"

        She was overcome with a fit of weeping as together they made their way to a street telephone. Mrs Weiss, a folorn figure, stood clutching her beach bag as Uri contacted the central police station at the far end of Dizengoff street in the city centre.

        "I've got a distraught mother at my side. Her little boy has disappeared somewhere on the beach. We've searched as best we can; the lifeguard has broadcast an appeal. Nothing. Have you any news of a little boy being found?"

        "You aren't the boy's father, I take it," said the desk sergeant.

        "No, I simply offered to help.”

        "And what is the child's name? And the mother’s? And yours?"

        Increasingly impatient with the calmly methodical policeman, Uri supplied the necessary information. The desk sergeant thought it advisable for them to come down to the station. 

        "In the meantime I'll be making a few enquiries – hospitals and so on. Get over here as soon as you can.”

        Uri hailed a taxi, and the woman allowed him to usher her into the rear seat. As the car pulled away from the kerb, however, a sudden change of mood seemed to affect her. The apathy that had succeeded her previous bursts of hysteria fell away. In its place she became voluble, as if she felt an urgent need to explain herself precisely to the young man who had befriended her.
        "How we yearned for that child. He was a long time in coming, you see, and we got frightened that there was something wrong – with one or other of us. You understand?"

        She peered round into his face. Uri nodded.

        "You can only comprehend the agony of yearning for a child if you have lived through it. Month after month, the prayers, the hopes, the disappointment. Month after month. The doctors, the prescriptions, the suggestions. Month after month. But when the months turn into years, and hope continues to turn into despair – then come the recriminations. Which one of us is being punished? And why? What have I done? What have you done? Month after month, year after year. Imagine what that does to a human being. And then – picture it, Uri. The same faint glimmer of hope as last month, as the month before – but this time the glimmer is not extinguished like a spark in the dying embers of a fire. This time the glimmer remains, grows stronger. You dare not let yourself believe it. You present yourself to your doctor in fear, in trembling. You take the tests. You wait for the verdict. Uri, can you possibly begin to understand what such a woman feels when she learns that the everyday miracle, so commonplace for so many, has at last occurred for her? And can you understand with what love, what adoration, that child is received?"

        Suddenly, as if the release of words marked also the release of pent‑up emotion, she burst again into a fit of crying. 

        "Oh my darling, darling baby. Where are you?"

        The main Tel Aviv police station was comparatively calm for a July afternoon. The desk sergeant looked up as they approached.
        "Ah yes, the missing child. You'll be Mrs Weiss."

        "Have you any news?" she said.

        “We've had a phone call," said the sergeant.

        Mrs Weiss clasped her hands.

        "Thank God. Thank God."

        “…but I'm afraid," he went on, "there's nothing very definite."

        "Not definite?" said Uri. "What do you mean?"

        "A man rang just after I finished speaking to you."

        "A man?" Uri was puzzled. "Did he say who he was?"

        The policeman shook his head.

        "Well, what did he say? Is it a kidnap? Will there be a demand for ransom?"

        "All he said," said the desk sergeant, a man of unshakeable imperturbability, "was: 'Have you had a report of a missing child?' When I said: 'Yes, the mother's just on her way to the station, ' he rang off.” 

        "That's very strange," said Uri.

        A man approached them from behind and stood in front of the desk. Uri glanced at him. Cool grey suit, neat beard. Mrs Weiss caught sight of him. Her face lit up.

        “Dr Tannenbaum! What on earth are you doing here?"

        "Hullo, Mrs Weiss," said the newcomer. “I was worried about you. You know I worry about you a lot."

        Mrs Weiss's face was suffused with a great smile. 

        "Dear Dr Tannenbaum. You are so good to me."

        The desk sergeant laid down his pen. 

        "I take it you know this lady, sir."

        “Mrs Weiss and I are very well acquainted, sergeant," said Dr Tannenbaum.

        He drew a paper out of his pocket and presented it across the desk. 

        "If you glance through this document, you'll see it certifies that Mrs Esther Weiss is a long‑stay patient in the Eshkol Psychiatric Hospital, to which I have the honour to be consultant psychiatrist."

        The policeman studied the paper carefully, before folding it and returning it.

        "Yes, this seems in order."

        "Poor Mrs Weiss does have a tendency to wander, from time to time," said Dr Tannenbaum.

        "Well, doctor," said the desk sergeant, "and what am I to enter on this report? I take it there is no little boy?"

        "Oh, there was," said the doctor, "twenty years ago. At the very end of the war, in Europe. Mrs Weiss was in one of the concentration camps with her son. They were picked up in '42, but she managed to keep her little boy with her. Then, with only a few weeks to liberation, they were separated. She was force‑marched to somewhere further inside Germany; the child was kept in the original camp. She never saw her son again. After the end of the war she eventually found her way to Israel, but the shock of it all had unhinged her mind. For twenty years she has been searching for the son she so yearned for, and who was snatched away from her. Sometimes she prowls round the grounds of the hospital at night carrying a child's coat and calling for him; sometimes she goes to the nearest town and walks the streets. On occasion she gets further afield – like today."

        "Poor woman," murmured Uri, for he had a very kind heart.
        The doctor took her gently by the arm. 

        "Such beautiful blue eyes," said Mrs Weiss. 

        As he led her away, she looked Uri full in the face. 

        "Just like yours."

        Uri was taken up with the woman's sad story. 

        "Still looking for her lost child," he said to the policeman. "After all that time."

        "You still here?” said the sergeant. "What are you waiting for?"

         "A happy ending?" said Uri. "Please – take a look at those particulars you took down so carefully. See what you have about me."

        “Uri Segal," read out the sergeant. "Aged 24. That's right, isn't it?"

        "As far as it goes," said Uri. "Yes, I'm 24, more or less. And yes, I'm known as Uri Segal. But there's more to it. You see, I came to Israel as a very young boy in a group of orphan children, and I grew up in a children's village. They told me that I came without papers or belongings of any sort. I didn't say a word for nearly six months. So they made up a name for me – it's as good as any other – and they guessed my age. So yes, for all practical purposes I'm Uri Segal, aged 24. But – and this is the incredible, the fantastic possibility – couldn't I just as well be Danny Weiss, little Danny lost at the age of four in 1945, sought for ever since and, by a chance in a million, found twenty years later by his own mother on the beach at Tel Aviv?"

        You know what they say about the sea‑front at Tel Aviv. Walk along it often enough, and you're bound to meet everyone you've ever known.
Published in The Times of Israel, 29 April 2020:

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Thinking confederation

Letter published in the Jerusalem Post, 26 April 2018

In  “Nevertheless, a confederation” (April 23), advocates from the Israeli-Palestinian movement A Land for All propose two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, allied into a new legal entity – a confederation.  The state of Palestine would be based on the pre-Six Day War boundaries.

From the Israeli perspective such a solution, however much modified by land swaps, simply will not do.  Almost certainly Hamas, which is intent on Israel’s destruction, would gain power sooner or later, either through elections, or by way of a violent coup as it did in Gaza. The new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. 

This in itself may not concern the leaders of the Palestinian Authority very much, but what does worry them very much is the prospect of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defenses against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

 A much more robust approach is required in which both Israel’s security needs and those of a new sovereign Palestine are taken into account. One possibility (and US President Donald Trump’s peace team may be considering it) would be an initiative, backed by the US, the Arab League and Israel, that is aimed at bringing two new legal entities into existence simultaneously – a sovereign state of Palestine and a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine.  

   A confederation is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security or commerce.  A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, but also to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development, and also in administering Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defense forces of the confederation.  

A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where the answer to a peaceful and thriving Middle East might lie. 

Neville Teller

Friday, 20 April 2018

A lifelong quest for peace

Gershon Baskin’s new book: “In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine” reviewed

Gershon Baskin is a man of extraordinary ability who has not only strong supporters, but also fierce critics.  His new book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, certainly confirms Baskin’s remarkable qualities, but it is not calculated to placate those who oppose the cause to which he has dedicated his life.

Baskin has believed passionately for at least 40 years that peace between Israel and Palestine is attainable provided both have their own state, and he has devoted all his energies in striving to achieve this. The odds he has faced have been formidable, and he has overcome most of them through an awe-inspiring combination of single-minded persistence, unshakeable confidence and invincible optimism. 

Baskin was born in New York in 1956, and reckons he was something of a Zionist from the age of eight.  He came to Israel for the first time in 1969 to celebrate his barmitzvah, and once back home involved himself heart and soul in his local Youth Zionist Movement, Young Judea.  Under its auspices, and later through a new American-Jewish organization, Breira, he began concerning himself increasingly with the Arab-Israel conflict.  The seeds of his subsequent convictions were planted by Breira’s first public statement, which called on Israel to recognize the national aspirations of the Palestinian people by making territorial concessions.  The document was denounced by the governing body of America’s Conservative Jews which declared that Breira was giving comfort to Israel’s enemies.

Not one whit discomforted, Baskin, while still studying at New York University, arranged with a few friends in 1976 to meet the representative to the UN of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Sustained by his innate chutzpah, he tried to convince the PLO man that if the Palestinians supported the two-state solution, Israel would respond and the peace process could start.

          “Over my dead body” was the response he received, reflecting the unequivocal stance within the PLO Charter that Israel had no right to exist.

From this starting point Baskin charts the slow evolution of his ideas about the  mechanisms through which peace might be established between Israel and the Palestinians.

He started his long journey by spending two years living and working in the Palestinian-Israeli village of Kufr Qara.  During that time he learned to speak Arabic, made many Palestinian friends, and most important perhaps, gained an invaluable understanding, based on personal experience, of what life was like for ordinary Palestinians in post-Six Day War Israel. He emerged with a unique background that was to prove invaluable later in his career. 

Discovering that Israel’s government entirely ignored the matter of Jewish-Arab relations, Baskin wrote to prime minister Menachem Begin proposing such a post and himself to fill it.  Receiving positive feedback from some people in government and a few Members of the Knesset (MKs), he set about an intensive lobbying campaign.  It took fourteen months but finally, with the help of MK Mohammed Watad, the government hired him.  He was the first Israeli civil servant specifically charged with improving Jewish-Arab relations.

Following two years in the army, Baskin next devoted his inexhaustible energy to establishing a new organization – the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).  In trawling Israeli and Palestinian society widely for members and support, both moral and financial, he laid out the principles that would guide the new body.  The core issue, he insisted, was no longer which people – Israelis or Palestinians – would prevail, but how the two were to live together side by side.

Baskin later found himself involved in secret discussions at the highest Israeli and Palestinian levels communicating between then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.  Years later he was involved in the peace effort headed by then-US secretary of state, John Kerry, engaging with Palestinian Authority president  Mahmoud Abbas, other leading figures in the Palestinian body politic, and the Israeli government . 

But Baskin regards his crowning achievement as the one that culminated in 2011: the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.  Baskin organized the secret back-channels that enabled the discussions to take place, and negotiated personally with several Hamas leaders. It is an achievement that split Israeli public opinion in a serious way.  To secure Schalit’s return Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, most of them convicted of terrorist acts, some of atrocious proportions.  This was a difficult pill for many Israelis to swallow, especially bereaved families.
In his final pages, Baskin, a Jerusalem Post columnist, sets out in some detail his formula for achieving peace. He believes that both the Israeli and the Palestinian people need what he calls the “territorial expression of their identity.”  Israel will never be free from Palestinian violence, he writes, unless Palestinians are free from Israeli domination and control. Expressing only a very occasional doubt about the genuine desire for peace among the Palestinian leadership, Baskin paints an enticing, but not altogether convincing, picture of a possible golden future for the conflict-ridden Holy Land.

Published in the Jerusalem Post magazine, 20 April 2018

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Commonwealth - a role in the peace process?

                                  video version
The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting opened on April 16, 2018 in London.  Most of the world’s media, except perhaps those of the Commonwealth nations, gave the event less attention than it deserves – but that has been the fate of the Commonwealth itself for many years.

The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know little about.  The Commonwealth Games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest across the globe – the 21st Games kicked off in Australia on April 4 − but as for the background or purposes of the organization itself there is little general knowledge or concern.  And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. 
Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, which explains why the Queen is head of the organization, but what unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. 

These “Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world.
It was in 1884 that Lord Roseberry, later a British Prime Minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1949, when India achieved independence.  Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown.

Since then, fully independent countries from all parts of the globe have flocked to join the Commonwealth.  At first all were required to have some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied to join.  Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join.  Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive.

Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

Both the Palestinians and Israel have, in the past, toyed with the possibility.  In February 1997 the UK’s Independent newspaper carried a story under the headline “Palestine looks at membership of the Commonwealth”.  “Once the Palestinians achieve self-determination,” ran the story, “the Commonwealth secretary general…sees no obstacle to Palestine becoming the 54th member of the organisation.”

Ten years later, in December 2007, the Jewish Journal reported:
“As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations… Those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”  An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

The idea of full membership still seems politically unrealistic, but the prospect of forging some sort of link between the Commonwealth family of nations and Israel, or even a sovereign Palestine – if or when it comes into existence − has recently gained some substance.

The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself. It recently embarked on an ambitious program aimed at raising the relevance of the modern Commonwealth by promoting links around the world. It has already opened new branches in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, and Dublin.  In February 2018, with the blessing of US President Donald Trump, the RCS opened a US branch in Mississippi, with a view to eventually bringing America into the Commonwealth fold as an "associate member". 

A major rationale for the Royal Commonwealth Society’s expansion program has been  Brexit – the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (EU).  Brexit will free the UK from many of the trade constraints imposed by membership of the EU, and allow it to pursue trading opportunities across the globe. Israel has long been regarded by the UK as a prime future trading partner, and a UK-Israel free trade deal is already in negotiation.  In the circumstances, Israel would seem an obvious future location for an RCS branch office.                                              
And if the RCS were to make a similar offer to the Palestinian Authority, provided a sovereign Palestine emerges from a successful peace deal, it might be making a truly positive contribution to advancing the peace process.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 April 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 April 2018:

Syria's future

                                                                                  video version
On April 4, 2018 three national presidents met in the Turkish capital of Ankara. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted his Russian and Iranian counterparts − Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani − to discuss a way forward in Syria. In the statement that followed, the three leaders claimed to be working closely to bring about a lasting peace in Syria. 

“How ludicrous!” commented Mishary al-Zaidi in the Saudi Arabian journal Okaz“As Russian warplanes indiscriminately bomb civilian targets in Syria, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded, Moscow claims it is working for peace.”

He went on to point out that Iranian-backed militias, fighting against what he termed “legitimate Syrian opposition forces”, have taken over large areas of Syria and displaced millions of citizens from their homes. He might have added a comment on Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in its effort to dislodge the Kurdish Peshmerga forces which played a vital role in defeating Islamic State.

“It is clear to any outside observer,” continued al-Zaidi, “that these countries lack any legitimacy to speak about peace and security in Syria. In fact, they are part of the problem…”

Of course he is right.  Here are three non-Arab countries presuming to determine the future of a major Arab regional entity.  Each is in Syria because it seized the opportunity provided by a power vacuum to establish a politico-military presence, and despite their apparent unity, each has its own priorities.  Russia’s purpose is to consolidate its strategic foothold in the eastern Mediterranean; Rouhani’s aim is to maintain the Assad regime in power; Erdogan is intent on dismantling Kurdish PYD rule in the north.

Al-Zaidi  asserts that Russia, Iran and Turkey speak only for their own interests, not those of the Syrian people whom they have killed in their thousands and forced from their homes in millions.  But the unhappy reality is that in international affairs might is right, and to the victor go the spoils.  There is, in short, a good chance that Syria’s future will indeed be determined by the unsavory Russo-Turco-Iranian triumvirate through what is known as the Astana process, rather than by the official UN Geneva-based peace process headed by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura.
The meeting in Ankara was the second such – the first took place last November in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Putin has a lavish holiday residence.  All along, formal statements from the group have emphasized that Astana and Geneva are not in competition, and that it is the Geneva process that is the essential means of finding “a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict.”  But it is difficult to see a need for two parallel initiatives with the same objective. 

There is little comfort in noting that during the Ankara discussions Rouhani subscribed to the idea of drawing up a new constitution for Syria.  Iranian involvement in shaping the structure of a post-war Syria inevitably raises the prospect of Iran embedding itself into the body politic and consolidating its grip on its “Shia crescent”. This danger was recognized by the US on April 14, when its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that deterring Iran’s entrenchment in Syria was one of Trump’s top priorities, and would help determine how long the US maintained a military presence there.

In their post-Ankara joint statement, the three leaders set out five principles that they agreed should underlie any future settlement, namely the “sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and nonsectarian character” of Syria.  This formula, it has been suggested, represents a compromise among the three over the nature of a future Syrian government.  Russia may have given up its proposed federalist concept, while Iran and Turkey may have agreed not to seek an Alawi- or Sunni-dominated solution.

The Astana process might, therefore, result in proposals for a power-sharing government rather along the Iraqi lines.  Assad’s own future, however, is by no means settled.  Putin has been equivocal  about it, while Erdogan is a long-time opponent of Assad.  If the intention is to hand over any final Astana plan to the Geneva process, Assad’s eventual fate undoubtedly hangs in the balance.  In Geneva, the combined Syrian opposition has an assured presence, and they are adamant that Assad must play no part in Syria’s long-term future – the main reason why the peace process has so far failed.

The last session, the eighth, held in December 2017, collapsed because of pre-conditions set by the Syrian government for holding direct talks with the opposition. According to de Mistura the Syrian government delegation refused to discuss two agenda items – a constitutional process and presidential elections.  The Syrian government lead negotiator, Bashar Ja’afari, said that a statement issued ahead of the talks by the opposition delegation team demanded a political transition in which Assad did not participate. He said he would not negotiate under blackmail.

Astana has not yet tackled the issue of Assad’s future, but rather than handing the presidency back to Assad, Putin has hinted at the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as one candidate among several.  There would be a sort of precedent to fall back on.  In late April 2014, Assad himself announced that he would run in Syria's first multi-candidate direct presidential election.  Although the poll was boycotted by opposition parties, the election was held, and Assad is formally in the middle of a 7-year term which ends in 2021.

Most western nations have asserted that Assad’s early departure is an essential element in any plan for the future of Syria – a position likely to be held even more firmly following the Syrian government's chemical attack on Douma, and the subsequent western riposte. Reports from the US  back in December indicated that the Trump administration was prepared to accept Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled presidential election.  If this remains the position, Putin may simply decide to strong-arm both Assad and the rebel representatives into agreeing to a presidential election in 2021, as part of a new constitutional order.  If the Geneva process were handed this on a plate, it might be possible to incorporate it into a UN-backed agreement. 
The fact of the matter is that nothing succeeds like success, and people respond to a strong leader.  Despite the police state he ran until 2011, Assad continues to command the support of a large section of Syrian society. If he were to stand in a fully free, fair and internationally supervised presidential poll, the outcome is far from certain.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 April 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 30 April 2018: