If Hafez el Assad said yes because he thought Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would say no, he may have been sadly mistaken. But the Syrian president probably made no such miscalculation. He does not normally outsmart himself.
Wrestling with the question whether to comply with Secretary of State James A. Baker III's plan for Middle East negotiations, Mr. ,, Shamir is, on the surface, his old intransigent self. His political career is not, however, dedicated to saying no. It is dedicated to preserving for Israel all the land it now holds, and to winning eventual Arab acceptance by holding firm.
The situation has changed. Mr. Assad, a cunning fellow, has helout the prospect of face-to-face negotiations leading to Syrian recognition of Israel. He may not be honest; he may link it to conditions Israel could never accept; that would need to be tested. But he has read the world situation as calling for change in his posture, and he may have read it as calling for durable peace between Syria and Israel, which also calls for testing.
Mr. Shamir wants that as much as all Israelis do. And so, while still not committed yea or nay to the Baker invitation, he put out word, in his usual gruff manner, that he would insist on conditions. The catch was that the conditions might already have been met.
Mr. Baker has seemed to side with Mr. Shamir on the sticking point -- which Palestinians are acceptable at a negotiating table. The prospect is offered of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in which the Palestinians would hail from the West Bank and Gaza, not from exile, East Jerusalem or the PLO. After all, President Assad is no friend of the PLO; nor is King Hussein of Jordan. The PLO fears getting squeezed out for having chosen the wrong side in the gulf war. It is trying to round up champions, such as France, to say it belongs in the process. But the PLO has lost its veto power.
Mr. Baker seems to have convinced Mr. Shamir that Mr. Assad really means it. Mr. Assad has diluted his concept of a United Nations dimension. One of the notions floating by is that peace talks would produce a Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, with the question of sovereignty postponed for three years. If that should happen, Mr. Shamir, who is 75, would leave for his successor what is most distasteful to himself.
In recent polls, about half the Israeli public favored exchanging land for peace. That was when no peace was on offer. If Israelis became convinced that historic Arab positions had changed and a true peace was obtainable, Israeli public opinion would become more accommodating. Both Hafez el Assad and Yitzhak Shamir must realize that.