The Syria-Israel Negotiations: Who Is Telling the Truth?

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VOL. 29

1999/2000

No. 2
P. 65
Special Document
The Syria-Israel Negotiations: Who Is Telling the Truth?
FULL TEXT

 

Syria and Israel are engaged in a dispute about the past--about what happened during their negotiations from 1992 to 1996. What commitments, if any, did Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the two Israeli prime ministers of the time, convey to President Hafiz al-Asad through the United States? Did the United States commit to Syria more than it was authorized to commit--in other words, did Warren Christopher, U.S. secretary of state at the time, "screw up" in conveying the commitments, as some Israelis have since claimed? And, if commitments were indeed made, to what extent are they binding on Israel's present leader, Prime Minister Ehud Barak?

These questions lie at the heart of the present difficulty in resuming negotiations on the Syrian track of the peace process.

A study of the record of the 1992-96 talks, based on unpublished documents and extensive interviews with people intimately involved, leads to the conclusion that this is a tale of political deception, of saying one thing and meaning another, of missed opportunities and bitter disappointments.

* * *

When Labor leader Ehud Barak won the Israeli elections on 17 May of this year, he and President Asad of Syria exchanged words of mutual esteem unprecedented between an Israeli and a Syrian leader. But hopes that peace talks would soon resume, having been interrupted by Shimon Peres in March 1996 and put in cold storage for the next three years by Benjamin Netanyahu, have so far been disappointed. The two sides have been unable to agree on what basis to start talking. Syria says Rabin and then Peres gave a commitment to withdraw from the Golan to the 4 June 1967 lines; Israel says they did not. Asad wants Barak to endorse that commitment before negotiations resume; Barak has so far refused to do so. Asad insists that the Israeli commitment to withdraw must be the baseline from which negotiations resume; Barak has responded by saying he wants to hear from Syria on a host of other questions--water, Lebanon, terror, security arrangements, early warning, the opening of borders, the setting up of embassies--before he says how far he is prepared to withdraw.

As usual, the United States has come down on the Israeli side of the argument, although with some ambiguity. On 3 November, a "senior State Department official"--very probably Dennis Ross, the special Middle East coordinator who was mainly responsible, with Secretary Christopher, in mediating the Israel-Syria talks--was reported as saying that "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and there were no agreements in this area." Two days later, on 5 November, the State Department spokesman James Rubin repeated this cryptic phrase and then added, "The United States only conveys, from one party to another, what we are authorized to convey. We don't commit further than we're authorized to commit; we don't commit less than we're authorized to commit."

Though this seemed to be a clever exercise in fence-sitting, the American statement was immediately seized upon by a spokesman for Israel's prime minister. "The U.S. position," he declared, "only confirms what Prime Minister Barak has said on a number of occasions, to the effect that Israel never gave any commitment to withdraw to this or that line. The territorial issue, just like all other issues, should be part of the negotiations and not a prerequisite to them" (Yedi'ot Aharonot, 4 November 1999).

Who is telling the truth? And what does the record show?

THE COMMITMENT TO FULL WITHDRAWAL

President Asad does not like ambiguities. Before entering a negotiation, he likes to know where he is going and what the end result will be.

It will be recalled that from the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 to Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin's election in June 1992, there was no movement on the Syrian track. This was because the Syrians refused to discuss any substantive issues until Israel conceded that the Golan would have to be returned. Between July 1992 and the summer of 1993, Rabin made a number of statements that could be interpreted as signals to Syria, as well as to the Golan settlers, that Israel was ready to consider at least a partial withdrawal from the Golan, but this was not enough for Asad.

Again, there was no movement in the talks until, on 3 August 1993, Rabin asked Secretary Christopher to convey an important message to the Syrian leader. Christopher was in Damascus the following day, 4 August, and according to both Syrian and American sources, he told Asad, "Prime Minister Rabin has asked me to tell you that Israel is ready for full withdrawal from the Golan provided its requirements on security and normalization are met." The first thing to note is that the message to Damascus was conveyed indirectly through Secretary Christopher, rather than directly from one delegation to another (even though by August 1993 the two delegations had held no fewer than ten rounds of largely fruitless bilateral talks in Washington). Rabin's message was conveyed orally: it was never written down. Whenever the Americans, in the course of the subsequent negotiations, proposed putting it on paper, Rabin evaded their request. Perhaps most important of all, the message to Syria was sent in the greatest secrecy. The Americans, who conveyed the message, and the Syrians, who received it, were sworn to secrecy. Apart from Rabinovich, no one else on the Israeli side was allowed to know of the offer. Rabin's generals were kept in the dark, as was his foreign minister, Peres, possibly because of personal antipathy, possibly because Rabin feared a leak from Peres's "court." In sum, Rabin insisted on total confidentiality.

As the message makes clear, Rabin's offer was conditional on Israel's needs being met. What did Rabin want from Syria in return for his offer? The list, as conveyed by Christopher, was long. Rabin insisted on elaborate security arrangements with American participation. He wanted a peace treaty with full normalization up front, including diplomatic relations, but this was to be matched initially by only a very limited Israeli withdrawal on the Golan. No Israeli settlements were to be dismantled. Moreover, Rabin demanded a five-year period to "test" Syrian good behavior, during which Israel would require "tangible proofs of peace" before contemplating a more significant withdrawal. There was to be no linkage between the Syrian peace treaty and Israel's ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians. The whole package was to be subject at the end of the day to a referendum. Rabin also wanted to know if Syria was ready to crack down on Hizballah in Lebanon, to expel the ten "rejectionist" Palestinian factions from Damascus, and to sever its strategic relationship with Iran.

Amazingly, Asad did not reject Rabin's whole proposal as a bad joke. He was prepared to negotiate. He rejected the proposal of diplomatic relations up front but accepted the basic equation of trading "full withdrawal for full peace." He accepted international participation in the security arrangements. On the timetable for implementing the agreement, he suggested six months rather than Rabin's five years. On returning to Jerusalem from Damascus, Secretary Christopher described Asad's response as positive, but Rabin professed to be very disappointed. He did not want to bargain. In his estimation, Asad had rejected his package.

Another highly significant aspect of Rabin's "opening to Syria" was its timing. It was made just days before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, meeting secretly in Norway, concluded their marathon negotiations on the arrangements for Palestinian Interim Self-Government--the so-called Oslo accords. It is often said that Oslo was Peres's baby, that Rabin kept himself aloof from the negotiations. According to an argument frequently heard in Israel, Rabin was convinced of the strategic advantages of a deal with Syria and made the offer to Asad to give himself an alternative to a deal with the Palestinians. If Asad had accepted his package, the argument goes, he would have scaled back Oslo, even perhaps cancelled it altogether, and moved forward to peace on the Syrian track.

This view is not supported by the evidence. It is simply not true that Rabin left the Oslo negotiations to Peres. From the spring of 1993, the Israeli end of the Oslo negotiations was in Rabin's own office. He personally followed and approved every move. Moreover, he faced far more pressure to do a deal with the Palestinians than with Syria, and he had a far greater incentive to do so. The Golan front was quiet, as it had been since 1974, whereas the Palestinian intifada was shaking the ground under his feet. Not only was it more urgent for him to deal with the Palestinians than with Syria, it was also far easier politically. A clue to where Israel's real interest lay may be seen in the level of activity on the different tracks: the Syrian track was virtually on ice from June 1992 to August 1993, one of several interruptions and suspensions. In contrast, the secret talks with the Palestinians in Norway had become an absorbing, dramatic, escalating, all-out effort of persuasion, pressure, clever drafting, and ultimate deal making.

In their innocence, the Palestinians agreed to end the intifada in exchange for little more than Israeli recognition of the PLO. They were prepared to defer the key issues of settlements, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem and to leave to Israeli goodwill their aspiration to statehood. Rabin knew, however, that in any deal, Asad would demand a public commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan and the dismantling of Jewish settlements. There was little doubt which was the more attractive deal.

What was the meaning, therefore, of Rabin's indirect, oral, conditional, secret, eleventh-hour offer of full withdrawal to Asad?

The evidence suggests overwhelmingly that it was a political deception, a ruse of war. Rabin knew that Asad would be enraged by Arafat's separate deal at Oslo and was afraid that he might try to sink it. He also knew the Palestinians were terrified at the prospect of Israel striking a deal with Syria first, which would leave them alone and more vulnerable than ever.

Rabin's offer was, therefore, tailored to engage Asad just enough to blunt his attack on Oslo while, at the same time, frightening the Palestinians into concessions. Playing one Arab party against the other was a time-honored Israeli strategy. It worked.

The Syrians were not the only ones deceived. The Americans had not been briefed by Israel about the Oslo negotiations. They had been vaguely aware of an Israeli back channel to the Palestinians, but had given it little importance. Rabin had been careful to keep them out of the picture. In fact, while the secret talks with the Palestinians were taking place, the Americans had been pressing Israel to do a deal with Syria and had repeatedly assured Asad that this was their priority. But once the Americans had been told about Oslo, they were enlisted to mollify the Syrian leader. Rabin asked President Clinton to persuade Asad to moderate his criticism of the agreement. Accordingly, in a long telephone conversation, Clinton urged Asad to authorize his Washington ambassador, Walid al-Moualem, to attend the signing ceremony on 13 September 1993, when Rabin shook Arafat's hand. Clinton's argument to Asad reeked of hypocrisy--but whether it was deliberate or unwitting must be open to conjecture.

Rabin, he said, needed Asad's help. Rabin wanted to proceed on the Syrian track, but he needed more political strength. If the Oslo deal were strongly supported--and if Asad would crack down on the "enemies of peace" (i.e., the Palestinian "rejectionist" factions based in Damascus)--Rabin would restart negotiations for a comprehensive settlement and Syrian interests would be addressed. It was in Syria's ultimate interest, he said, to support the Oslo accord. Asad was not taken in, but, not wishing to offend Clinton, he allowed his ambassador to be present at the ceremony.

But Syria's interests were not addressed. After Oslo, it was Jordan's turn. King Hussein agreed on a peace agenda with Israel just one day after the signing ceremony at the White House and then moved forward in stages to the peace treaty with Israel signed on 26 October 1994. Once again the Americans were enlisted to assure Asad that he had not been forgotten, but that progress on the Syrian track would again have to be deferred. The "circuit was overloaded," Clinton explained. Israel needed time to "digest" the agreements with the Palestinians and with Jordan before it could consider the Golan. "What is this problem with Israel's digestion?" Asad used to enquire with mock seriousness of his American visitors.

An examination of the evidence forces one to conclude that in August 1993 Yitzhak Rabin certainly made a commitment on full withdrawal from the Golan to be implemented within the context of a peace package. The commitment was formally conveyed to Asad by Secretary Christopher. But the extravagant terms Rabin demanded in return, the absolute secrecy he insisted on, and, above all, the timing of his offer, all suggest that he did not mean it. It was, in all probability, a political maneuver, of doubtful sincerity, made in the interest of other objectives.

On 4 October 1999, Eytan Haber, who was Rabin's office director in 1993, was interviewed on Israeli television about Rabin's offer of full withdrawal. Haber recounted that when Rabin heard that Christopher had delivered the offer to Asad as an Israeli commitment, he "shouted at Warren Christopher so loudly that the walls of the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem actually shook." Christopher, he claimed, "screwed up" by presenting the offer to Asad as an Israeli proposal rather than as an American "inference" from what Rabin had said.

If Haber's account is true, it provides further evidence that Rabin said one thing in such a manner as to mean another. He was evidently providing himself with an exit. The incident also illustrates the relationship between Rabin, a veteran soldier and politician, and Christopher, the relatively untried California lawyer whose personal authority may not have been up to the task and whom Rabin appears to have manipulated for his own ends.

THE COMMITMENT TO WITHDRAW TO THE 4 JUNE 1967 LINES

In negotiations with Israel, Asad likes to dot the i's and cross the t's. Not for him the "constructive ambiguity" that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used to boast about in his Middle East diplomacy of the 1970s. Experience has taught Asad that vagueness is invariably a source of dispute and misunderstanding. It was in this spirit that, after receiving Prime Minister Rabin's commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan, conveyed to him by Secretary Christopher on 4 August 1993, Asad sought further clarification. He asked Christopher two questions:

"When Rabin speaks of full withdrawal, does he mean withdrawal to the positions Israel was occupying on 4 June 1967?"

Christopher replied, "I have a commitment to full withdrawal, but without definition of the line."

"Does Israel have any territorial claim to any territory occupied on the Syrian front in June 1967?" Asad then asked.

Christopher answered, "Not to my knowledge."

Asad needed answers to both his questions, but as the months passed without an answer, he started to lose faith both in Rabin's seriousness and in the resolve of the U.S. mediator. All too often, it seemed to him that Secretary Christopher and Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross were acting as mere messengers or, worse still, as advocates for Israel, rather than as active, fair-minded mediators.

Asad had held a summit meeting in Geneva with President Clinton on 16 January 1994, at which he declared that Syria had made a "strategic choice for peace." He was ready for "normal, peaceful relations" with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal. Clinton welcomed these statements and publicly urged Israel to respond positively. But Rabin had expressed displeasure at the results of the summit and there was little follow up. With growing impatience, Asad waited for Israel to "digest" its agreements with the Palestinians and with Jordan and turn its attention to the Syrian track.

The clarification Asad sought was not forthcoming until Secretary Christopher and Dennis Ross undertook a series of extended shuttles between Israel and Syria from April to July 1994, starting with a two-day visit to Damascus from 30 April to 1 May when Christopher brought to Damascus Rabin's package of peace proposals. It was not very different from the package he had proposed in August 1993.

Rabin confirmed his commitment to full withdrawal, but he wanted it to take place gradually in stages over five years, beginning with a very minimal pullback of only a couple of miles. However, up front and in the first stage, he wanted open borders, diplomatic relations, embassies, and elaborate security arrangements.

Asad reminded Christopher of his two questions. Did full withdrawal mean to the 4 June 1967 lines? Did Israel have any claim to any territory occupied in 1967? Still unable to provide Asad with the clarification he wanted, Christopher said he thought Rabin meant withdrawal to the international frontier. This was the frontier drawn in 1923 by Britain and France between Palestine and Syria after World War I. Asad would have none of it. Independent Syria had had no part in tracing that frontier. It was a line drawn by imperialism on the Arab map. The line he wanted was that of 4 June, the line between Syria and Israel on the eve of the 1967 War.

Asad was very clear and very firm: If Rabin would not commit himself to withdrawal to the 4 June lines there could be no peace process between the two states. Everything would be cancelled. Syria could not give away one centimeter of its territory. The Golan was a major symbol of Syrian sovereignty and independence. To give up one centimeter was tantamount to giving up the whole. Once again he demanded immediate clarification of Rabin's commitment.

But it was not until Christopher undertook yet another shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus, from 19 to 22 July 1994, that he was able to provide the clarification Asad had been seeking since the previous August.

Christopher was at last able to declare that Rabin had committed himself to full withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 lines, provided his needs were met within the context of a peace package. But, as usual, the commitment was to be kept secret to protect Rabin from hostile critics at home. Clinton himself telephoned Asad a few days later, on 25 July, and the two leaders agreed that the clarification was a major achievement. With Rabin's commitment firmly in hand, Asad gave his approval to a new phase of intensive negotiations to be conducted in Washington by the Syrian and Israeli ambassadors, Walid al-Moualem and Itamar Rabinovich, in the presence of Dennis Ross.

Was Rabin's "clarification" just another ruse? President Clinton and Secretary Christopher clearly thought the commitment was genuine and communicated this belief to Asad.

But in his account of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, The Brink of Peace, Rabinovich gives a significantly different version of what took place on 19 July, when Christopher asked Rabin to clarify whether his commitment to full withdrawal extended to the 4 June 1967 lines. "By now," Rabinovich writes, "Rabin had clearly decided that he could actually fit the issue (of June 4) into the paradigm built on August 3." According to Rabinovich, Rabin told Christopher that he could tell Asad that this was his "impression." But Rabin apparently did not make clear to Christopher that his "clarification" was less than a "commitment," and Christopher, not unnaturally, took it to be so. As the State Department spokesman pointed out in November 1999 when reviewing this matter, "We don't commit further than we're authorized to commit."

Rabin's dilemma was that he had, repeatedly, pledged to both Clinton and Christopher that he was serious about making peace with Syria, and the Americans had passed on this assurance to Asad in good faith. But the truth is that Rabin was in no hurry to make peace with Syria and was certainly not willing to pay a fair price. So, to satisfy the Americans, whose credibility with Syria was at stake, and to keep Asad engaged, Rabin went through the motions of negotiation--"even [as Rabinovich writes in a telling phrase] if that required occasional verbal concessions" (p. 239).

"Verbal concessions"? This further striking example of double-talk suggests that Rabin deliberately deceived both the Americans and Asad.

THE DEBATE ABOUT SECURITY

Asad sees the peace process principally as a means to recover by diplomacy the territories lost to Israel in the 1967 war. From 1967 to 1993, he put the recovery of Palestinian territories at the top of his list but, once the Palestinians went their separate way at Oslo, he has focused on the recovery of the Golan Heights and of the areas of south Lebanon that Israel has occupied, directly or through proxies, for more than two decades. This has become his definition of a comprehensive peace.

To Clinton, Christopher, and Ross--and indeed to Bush, Baker, and others before them--Asad has argued with striking consistency that he wants a just and comprehensive peace that ends Israeli occupation and that guarantees Arab rights in accordance with international legitimacy and the land-for-peace principle enshrined in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

But Asad suspects that Israeli leaders have not yet made the strategic choice for peace he claims to have made himself. He has long since accepted the fact of Israel's existence. As a realist, he recognizes that Israel has become an important player in the Middle East system and professes to be ready for "normal, peaceful relations" with it. But he is manifestly not prepared to accept Israel as the regional hegemon. He has no time for a peace that, by giving Israel additional strategic advantages, confirms its regional supremacy. Rightly or wrongly, he believes that Israel harbors further hegemonic ambitions that it is seeking to achieve under cover of the peace process. He views such ambitions as a recipe not for peace but for future conflict.

As the negotiations moved from one stalemate to another, Asad's suspicions of Israeli intentions deepened. He would often put the question to his ambassador in Washington, Walid al-Moualem: Are the Israelis serious? Have they made a strategic choice for peace or are they playing tricks with me?

Parallel with the negotiations on the meaning of "full withdrawal," another important subject of debate was the security component of peace. For both Syria and Israel, security arrangements were crucial because they went to the very heart of their respective visions of peace. Security was, in fact, the main subject of negotiation in the twenty months from April 1994 to Rabin's assassination in early November 1995.

Rabin wanted arrangements that neutralized Syria militarily and secured Israel's long-term dominance. Asad, in contrast, fought to limit the security arrangements to what he recognized as Israel's real needs, but refused to go beyond that. By any military measure, Israel was already far stronger than Syria: it could not legitimately demand further strategic advantage. Accordingly, he insisted that security arrangements had to be equal (mutasawiyya), reciprocal (mutakafiyya), and mutual (mutakabila). Peace, Asad argued, was the best guarantee of security.

In discussing security, the negotiators were mainly absorbed by two issues. Christopher reported to Asad that Rabin insisted on retaining the Israeli early warning station on Mount Hermon. This highly sophisticated radar and eavesdropping facility has long been a source of anger and humiliation to the Syrians. It enables Israel to look deep into Syria and Lebanon, and even into Iraq. It also enables Israel to listen in on telephone conversations in the Syrian capital.

Asad made clear that he would never consent to such a ground station on Syrian territory, that it was an unacceptable symbol of occupation. Instead, Syria proposed that early warning could adequately be provided to both sides by satellite and aerial reconnaissance and by an international force positioned on the Golan between the parties. Israel's insistence on a ground station to provide early warning was to be the subject of a major disagreement that has still not been resolved.

Christopher explained that Rabin proposed dividing the whole of Syria into four zones--a demilitarized zone, a limited force zone, a third zone where there could be only two divisions and one airfield, and finally an unrestricted zone in the rest of Syria. Asad was outraged: Instead of withdrawing from the Golan, Rabin wanted to occupy the whole country! He wanted to demilitarize the whole of Syria! He wanted to strip it of the capacity to defend itself! Did he want Syria to remove Damascus airport, Asad asked indignantly?

Asad then announced what was to be a cardinal principle of his negotiation: security arrangements had to be restricted to the areas of confrontation between Syria and Israel (manatiq al-tamass), that is to say, to a narrow band of territory 5 to 7 kilometers on either side of the 4 June 1967 line. This zone, where military forces were to be banned or limited, became known to the negotiators as the "relevant areas." But here, too, there was a major disagreement. While Syria wanted this band of territory to be narrow, Israel wanted it to be broad, especially on the Syrian side. Much of the security discussion in 1994 and 1995 was about these two issues: the provision of early warning and the definition of the "relevant areas."

After much fruitless debate, Asad concluded that no progress could be made until the political leadership on both sides had reached agreement on the broad aims and principles of security arrangements. Such a political agreement, he felt, could provide the necessary basis for the technical negotiations. Armed with guidelines from their political masters, the military experts would then work out the details.

When President Clinton visited Damascus on 27 October 1994 on his way home from the signing ceremony in Wadi `Araba of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Asad explained to him what he saw as the essential principles of the security arrangements. And, when the Syrian and Israeli chiefs of staff, General Hikmat Shihabi and General Ehud Barak, failed to make any headway at their meetings in Washington on 21-23 December, Asad became even more convinced of the need for an agreed statement of aims and principles.

So, on 20 January 1995, Asad wrote Clinton a letter setting out his version of the aims and principles that he believed should govern the security arrangements. This whole exercise was Asad's way of scaling down Israel's security demands to what he considered reasonable and legitimate--and to ensure that Israel did not secure undue strategic advantage. Above all, he was anxious to make sure that Israel would not use the pretext of its security needs to encroach on the 4 June lines.

After much discussion and further shuttles in the region by Christopher and Ross, agreement was finally reached on 24 May 1995 on a one-page document entitled "Aims and Principles of Security Arrangements." The Americans called it a "non-paper," apparently to make clear that it was not an official American document but rather a diplomatic device agreed to by both parties with American assistance to help push the negotiations forward.

To most readers, the document might seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it took months to negotiate:

Aims
1. The most important priority is to reduce, if not eliminate, the danger of surprise attack.
2. Prevent or minimize friction on a daily basis and on the boundary.
3. Reduce the danger for large-scale attack, invasion, or major war.

Principles
1. Security is a legitimate need for both sides. No claim of security, or a guarantee for it, should be achieved at the expense of the security of the other side.
2. Security arrangements should be equal, mutual, and reciprocal on both sides.
3. The two sides acknowledge that security arrangements should be arrived at through mutual agreement and, as such, should be consistent with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each side.
4. Security arrangements should be confined to the relevant areas on both sides of the boundary between the two countries.

In an addendum to paragraph 2, the notion of equality in security arrangements was further defined to address the Israeli argument that, because Israel and Syria were not geographically symmetrical, some flexibility would be required:

Equality, particularly in so far as geography and difficulties with geography are concerned, being as follows:
The purpose of the security arrangements is to ensure equality in overall security within the context of a state of peace between Syria and Israel. If, during the negotiations on security arrangements, it appears that the implementation of equality in principle, in so far as geography is concerned with regard to a particular arrangement is impossible or too difficult, the experts of the two sides will discuss the difficulty of this particular arrangement, resolve it either by modifying it (which includes supplementing or subtracting from) or by mutually agreeing to a satisfactory solution.

The last paragraph of the document--paragraph 4--was the subject of an extended wrangle. Instead of "both sides of the boundary," the original Syrian draft had said "both sides of the June 4, 1967 lines." Secretary Christopher objected, however, that the reference to the 4 June line was "highly confidential." It infringed the secrecy rule that Rabin had insisted on. It was then suggested that the Americans write Asad a side letter to affirm that the boundary in question was in fact the 4 June line.

But when Rabin heard of the letter he objected, and Ross had to explain to Asad that no letter would be delivered. Rabin, he told Asad, did not object to the commitment being conveyed orally but he had objected to the Americans putting it in writing. His objection was to the form, not to the substance. At this stage, Ross said that Rabin's commitment had been given not to Syria but to the United States. It was a "deposit in the American pocket." After more such hair-splitting, Asad said that he did not need a letter. It would not add anything to the commitments he had already been given--by Secretary Christopher, by Ross, and by President Clinton himself. "It is recorded in your minutes and ours. It is on paper. It is not a non-paper," Asad had said. "It is in the files of the National Security Council. If all this does not constitute a commitment, nothing else will. If we did not consider this a commitment, we would not have embarked on the peace negotiations."

From then on--and to this day--the two pillars of Asad's negotiating position were, first, Rabin's commitment to full withdrawal to the 4 June lines; and second, the document on the Aims and Principles of Security Arrangements. In Asad's view, this last put a straitjacket on Israel's security demands. As he explained to Christopher, Rabin's commitment to full withdrawal did not imply that Israel could demand everything it wanted in return. Israel could not dictate the security arrangements. Its demands would have to be reasonable. There were limits to everything, he insisted: "The needs of one party have to stop at the needs of the other. The freedom of one person stops where the freedom of the other person begins."

Anxious to see progress, Clinton then urged Asad to send General Shihabi back to Washington for another meeting with his Israeli counterpart--this time with General Amnon Shahak, who had replaced General Barak, the latter having by this time left the army for politics. But there was a problem. The Israeli generals had not been briefed about Rabin's commitment to withdrawal to the 4 June line. So Clinton asked Asad to keep the commitment secret and to make sure Shihabi did not mention it when he met Shahak.

On 6 June 1995, Clinton sent Asad a message through Ross: "As I told you in Damascus, and as I assured your Foreign Minister, I have a commitment in my pocket from Prime Minister Rabin for full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line. . . ." But, he added, "It is not appropriate to speak of it in public" when the chiefs of staff meet.

Ross explained to Asad that Shahak might have to testify before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset. He could not admit to the commitment in that forum. He would prefer to speak in terms of options: if Israel remained on the Golan, its security needs would be such and such, whereas if it withdrew to the 4 June lines, its security needs would be different, and so forth. Christopher made the same point to Asad a few days later: Rabin needed a certain flexibility in responding to public questions. But, he assured Asad, this would have no practical significance for the negotiations, as the commitment was firmly in the American pocket.

Asad was prepared to go along with the farce to protect Rabin from his political enemies. But to both Ross and Christopher he responded that, as far as Syria is concerned, there was only one option--the 4 June 1967 line. "I do not want any misunderstanding or vagueness to persist," he said.

On 27-29 June, Generals Shihabi and Shahak met in Washington and, after their negotiations, were received by President Clinton at the White House. But, almost immediately, a disagreement arose about what, if anything, had been agreed. The definition of "relevant areas" had proved a sticking point, but Shihabi thought that on the other major issue, that of early warning, Shahak had agreed that satellite and aerial reconnaissance could replace the need for a ground station. The Israelis disputed this, and a prolonged and acrimonious quarrel ensued.

Asad became convinced that Rabin was deliberately wasting time. He came to believe that Rabin's hesitations and his obsessive insistence on secrecy could only mean that the Israeli leader had not finally decided on peace with Syria. The chance of reaching a settlement before the Israeli elections was slipping away. Moreover, it seemed to Asad that Christopher and Ross were not pressing Israel to move forward but were playing Israel's game by engaging in sterile disputes over procedure rather than substance. America was not taking the lead. It was letting Rabin dictate the pace.

Were Asad's suspicions correct? Contrary to his image as a strong leader, those who knew Rabin intimately say that he was strangely shy, hesitant, and indecisive. He did not think he had a popular mandate to withdraw from the Golan because he had not raised the issue during the 1992 election campaign. He did not relish a painful confrontation with the Golan settlers, most of whom were Labor party supporters. As Rabinovich confirms, from the summer of 1993 Rabin knew that he could not realistically do a deal with Syria during his first term. It might have to wait to his second term, if he were then in a position of strength and if Asad were correspondingly weaker. In the meantime, he concealed his intentions from both Syria and the Americans.

As Rabin marked time, pessimism descended on the Syria-Israel negotiations. The stalemate seemed total. It was then, on 4 November 1995, that Rabin was assassinated and the peace process entered a new phase.

FROM PERES TO BARAK: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE "DEPOSIT"?

Rabin did not tell Peres of his commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan, still less of his subsequent "clarification." At Rabin's funeral, Peres was therefore taken aback when Clinton mentioned the "deposit" in his pocket. So it was agreed that, before Peres went to the United States as prime minister to meet President Clinton on 11 December 1995, Dennis Ross would travel out to Israel to give him a full briefing.

The briefing took place on 4 December, whereupon Ross went to Syria the next day to inform Asad how it had gone. He told Asad that Peres had invited General Shahak and General Danny Yatom, the head of Mossad, to attend the briefing. This time, the generals were not kept in the dark. Ross told them the full story of the negotiations, beginning with Rabin's commitment in August 1993 and his subsequent clarification in July 1994 that the commitment was to withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 lines. Ross then reviewed the long debate over security arrangements and told Peres of Asad's frustration and growing suspicion at Rabin's foot-dragging.

At this meeting, Asad learned from Ross that Peres was eager to proceed to a comprehensive peace, not only with Syria but with the whole Arab world. Peres wanted to move fast. He had even suggested that, had he been in Rabin's shoes, he could have made peace with Syria. This was a new tune from an Israeli leader.

A few days later, on 11 December, President Clinton telephoned Asad immediately after his meeting with Peres. He had "good news." Peres had endorsed Rabin's commitment and was anxious for an early summit meeting with Asad. Less than a week later, Secretary Christopher was in Damascus with the same clear message:
Peres reaffirmed in his meeting with President Clinton and me the commitment to full withdrawal that Prime Minister Rabin had put in our pocket. He stands by the commitment to full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line, subject to the same understanding that Prime Minister Rabin made. It depends on Israel's needs being met.

But what were Israel's needs, as Peres defined them?

Whereas Rabin, the former military commander, had stressed Israel's security needs and sought strategic advantage, Peres, the visionary advocate of a "new" Middle East, pressed for regional economic development and water security for Israel.

He wanted guarantees that Syria would not tamper with the flow of water from the Golan to Lake Tiberias, and he wanted joint Syrian-Israeli economic ventures to turn the Golan Heights into a "zone of prosperity." He proposed to tap international capital for his grandiose vision of Israeli-Syrian reconciliation.

Asad assured Christopher that cutting off the flow of water from the Golan or polluting Lake Tiberias were never in his mind. Part of the lake was Syrian anyway. Even at the worst times, Syria had not interrupted the flow of water. But Asad drew the line at joint ventures on the Golan. The Syrian public would see such ventures as an extension of the occupation, as a new form of Israeli hegemony, and he could not consider them. Nor was he keen on a summit meeting with Peres. This was a card he was not prepared to play until real progress was visible, and so far there had been none.

In late December 1995, a new phase of intensive Syrian-Israeli talks took place at the Wye Plantation, a conference center near Washington, when Uri Savir, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and one of the architects of the Oslo accords, replaced Ambassador Rabinovich at the head of the Israeli delegation. More rounds of talks were held in early January 1996 and some real progress was made, but soon outside factors intervened with deadly effect.

No doubt under pressure from his intelligence chiefs, Peres authorized the murder on 5 January of Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas "engineer" and bomb maker, even though he had been inactive for almost a year. And, on 7 February, to Asad's great disappointment, Peres announced that Israel would hold early elections in May, instead of in October--a decision that effectively put an end to his brief attempt at peace-making with Syria. On 25 February, no doubt seeking to avenge Ayyash, Palestinian suicide bombers struck at Jerusalem and Ashkelon, and then again in Jerusalem on 3 March, and in Tel Aviv on 4 March, causing great loss of life. The same day, Peres suspended the Wye talks and recalled the Israeli delegation. The peace process was over.

On 11 April, Peres launched the brutal and disastrous Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon, culminating in the massacre at Qana. These blunders caused Peres's stock to plummet. On 29 May 1996, he lost the election to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even more than his predecessors, Netanyahu, as prime minister, put security at the top of Israel's agenda. His blatant disregard for the Arab world seemed to herald a return to the extreme philosophy of a Vladimir Jabotinsky, for whom an "Iron Wall" of overwhelming strength alone could keep a permanently hostile Arab world at bay. In this spirit, Netanyahu was quick to make clear that the Golan was too valuable a strategic asset to give up--short of a Syrian guarantee of total, absolute, Israeli security. But, since it was self-evident that Syria could not possibly provide such blanket security, even if it were willing to do so, no deal was possible.

From time to time Netanyahu or one of his aides professed to want a negotiation with Syria "without preconditions"--that is, without endorsing either Rabin's commitment to withdraw or the document on the Aims and Principles of Security Arrangements. But Asad held firm to his position that negotiations could be resumed only where they left off--which remains his position to this day.

Throughout the Netanyahu era, the Syrian track was paralyzed. Instead of a peace process, Syria faced a series of hostile regional maneuvers.

One of Netanyahu's first moves was to propose a negotiation on a "Lebanon First" basis, and, when this was rejected, he offered to implement Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978, with certain conditions. He wanted Lebanon to disarm Hizballah, give a role to Antoine Lahd's South Lebanon Army, and guarantee the security of Israel's northern border. Syria and Lebanon dismissed these moves as transparent attempts to separate their two tracks, no doubt to allow Israel to withdraw from Lebanon while remaining on the Golan.

A more ambitious geopolitical move was the emergence of an Israeli-Turkish axis which, to Asad's chagrin, the United States actively supported, even encouraging Jordan to join as a junior partner. Syria and its ally Iran saw themselves as directly targeted by this new axis and moved into even closer partnership.

Even more worrying for Syria has been the continuing American attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein, very probably in the hope of tipping a post-Saddam Iraq into the U.S.-Israeli-Turkish camp, a move that, were it to be successful, would gravely affect the strategic environment of both Syria and Iran.

In explaining to Asad, in the month following Netanyahu's election, that the new prime minister was not prepared to endorse Rabin's "deposit in the American pocket," the ever-resourceful Ross came up with the phrase that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed"--the same phrase that is being used today to justify Prime Minister Barak's refusal to endorse the commitment. But recourse to such semantics is to confuse "agreement" with "commitment."

Asad has always recognized that Rabin's commitment was conditional on agreement being reached on the rest of the peace package. And he is, forlornly, all too aware that no agreement on the package was ever reached. Rabin's commitment was nevertheless a commitment: it was a guarantee that, at the end of the road, the Golan would be returned to Syria in its entirety. Without such a guarantee, Asad would not have embarked on the process.

The record shows that there were in fact three commitments: a commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan made by Rabin in August 1993; a "clarification" given by Rabin in July 1994 that by "full withdrawal" he meant withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 lines; and, following Rabin's assassination, an endorsement of this commitment by Peres in December 1995. But it would appear that the pledge of one elected government can be set aside by a successor elected government.

Asad embarked on the Madrid peace process on the basis of American assurances that the Golan was Syrian. On 1 June 1991, during the run up to Madrid, President Bush wrote Asad a letter (reprinted on pp. 523-24 of Bush's latest book, All the Best: My life in Letters and Other Writings). In his letter to Asad, Bush said that the United States would be a "driving force behind the negotiations, taking on a special responsibility for making them succeed." Bush then added:

I want to make clear that we will be doing so on the only basis possible for a comprehensive peace: Territory for peace applied to all fronts, including the Golan Heights. We will not change this fundamental policy position of ours; nor will we change our non-recognition of Israel's purported "Annexation" of the Golan Heights.

Asad has had time to reflect on the doubtful value of that solemn presidential assurance.

 

Patrick Seale, a British writer and Middle East expert, is credited with having a role in restarting the process following Prime Minister Barak's election, carrying a series of "messages" between Barak and Asad in June 1999.

The text was slightly amended and shortened with the approval of the author.

 

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