Israel’s terms for peace with Syria as revealed in the Israeli-leaked American document speak of a military redeployment with the settlements remaining in place. While Syria is responding favorably to Israeli demands for normalization and security, Israel’s ideas are more a road-map for permanent occupation than a plan for a reasonable peace agreement.

The current negotiating process is not Syria’s preferred method for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. For more than a decade, Syrian leaders did their utmost to consolidate the Arab stand before the 1991 Madrid conference, with the aim of rendering it impossible for any Arab party to sign a treaty with Israel before the rest were prepared to follow suit. It was agreed that each of the Arab parties (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the PLO) could pursue whatever means available to secure the best conditions suitable for their country’s interests. None, however, was supposed to sign a treaty until the rest reached the same point in coordinated negotiations with Israel. Peace would be possible, but only when all the Arab parties had arrived at agreements.

Syria’s logic was to deny a strong Israel any chance to use its strength against isolated and therefore weakened individual Arab countries on the one hand, and to rein in Arab parties that might elect to go it alone. In concluding the Oslo agreement secretly in 1993, Yasser Arafat not only broke ranks, but also this Arab contract, thus facilitating Israel’s longstanding strategy of fracturing and weakening the collective Arab position. The result was the current Palestinian-Israeli agreement, which all but Clinton’s spin-doctors and some Israelis consider a dysfunctional and profoundly asymmetrical agreement.

The first harvest of Israel’s post-Oslo success came in the 1994 Israeli peace treaty with Jordan, which had been willing but unable to conclude one since the 1950s. King Hussein, a long-time quiet ally of Israel, could not execute such a peace deal until the Palestinians broke the wobbly yet standing Arab refusal to recognize Israel until the Palestinian issue was satisfactorily resolved. Egypt’s 1979 unilateral peace treaty with Israel did not alter that Arab stand, basically because of the 1968 Baghdad Arab Summit refusing any contact with Israel and the PLO’s total rejection of Sadat’s unilateral peace with it. It was only after Oslo that Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania established diplomatic contacts with Israel. Now it becomes Syria’s turn to try.

Why Now?

Speculations about the reasons for the Syrian and Israeli leaders’ willingness to resume the talks include Syria’s stagnant economy, the health of President Asad and issues of succession to the presidency. Israel’s quagmire in Lebanon and the unacceptably high Israeli casualty rate at the hands of Hizbollah is another; Syria alone is capable of controlling Hizbollah’s anti-Israeli activities. However, by far, the most important factor for resuming the talks, not withstanding Clinton’s dozens of calls and letters to Asad and Barak, was an ambiguous Israeli agreement to Syria’s bottom-line demand: to restart negotiations where Rabin had left off in 1996, meaning a tacit Israeli willingness to relinquish the Golan Heights. Succeeding Israeli governments, Peres, Netanyahu and now Barak, have denied such a commitment was ever made by Rabin, and had hoped to return to the talks without any preconditions.

In the present negotiations, it was first believed that Israel had accepted the Syrian demand for withdrawal at least in principle. Negotiations, therefore, were supposed to be about whether the Israeli withdrawal will be to the 1923 border, Israel’s choice, or to the June 4, 1967 border, Syria’s preference, supported by various UN resolutions, including 242 and 338. Israel’s objective is to keep Syria away from the Sea of Galilee and from other sources of water, a point that Asad vigorously opposes. Asad is not Arafat and will accept no less than what Sadat accepted, meaning a full Israeli withdrawal, but also a readiness to negotiate water issues, just like the oil issue with Egypt.

Parallel to the Syrian demand for full Israeli withdrawal, is Israel’s insistence on security guarantees, including monitoring devices to be placed on Mount Hermon. According to the American leaked working paper, first in the Al Hayat Arabic daily and then a more complete version in Israel’s Haaretz, Syria appears to have accepted this demand and agreed that such devices be staffed by US and other international, not Israeli forces. Security issues were not the reason for occupying the Heights in the first place according to Moshe Dayan in a 1976 interview with Israeli journalist Rami Tal; it was greed for land and water, he said. Subsequently, many Israeli generals, active and retired, have supported returning the Golan in exchange for a secure peace.

The leaked document also shows that Syria is ready to cooperate on other fronts, particularly regarding the emotionally wrenching and costly in human life issue of south Lebanon. Syria has already exhibited its willingness and ability to influence Hizbollah fighters against retaliating for the Israeli shelling and killing of Lebanese civilians during the Shepherdstown talks. Hizbollah has always retaliated when shelling by Israeli forces or those of its Lebanese militia allies’ (SLA) killed Lebanese civilians. Without Syrian cooperation, Hizbollah may continue its war with Israel, possibly even past a settlement with Lebanon.

The American working paper disclosed a surprisingly forthcoming Syrian stance concerning the once very difficult issue of normalization with Israel. Syria, apparently, agreed to full normalization with Israel, including exchange of embassies and a two-way open border for the free flow of tourists and trade. At a point not far in the past, this position on the part of Syria would have been impossible to even contemplate. It becomes harder still in light of Syrian knowledge that whatever agreement is concluded with Barak will have to be ratified by the Knesset, not a sure thing, and also approved in a national referendum, where consent is even less certain. In previous rounds of talks, Syria flatly rejected placing the Heights future in the hands of the Israeli public. The Golan, according to international law, is occupied area and a settlement there, should flow from international, not Israeli law. As of mid January, 60% of the Israeli public stood in opposition to withdrawal from the Heights.

Barak: Obstinate and Intransigent

Surprising as Syria’s forthcoming stand may be, Israel’s is more so, but in the opposite direction. It is this openly intransigent Israeli stance, which so embarrassed the Syrian regime as to make it harden its position and look for cover to maintain its credibility with the Syrian and Arab publics. Particularly embarrassing is the Syrian apparent acknowledgment of all Israel’s conditions even before Israel accedes the basic Syrian point, i.e., withdrawal from the Golan. Israel’s position is that instead of withdrawal, there will be a deployment of its forces in the Golan, the American working paper shows. The deployment, it is further stated, would exclude civilians, meaning that after the agreement — now unlikely to happen – Israel will remain the sovereign power in the Heights. So settlements, settlers and the Israeli army will stay put after a peace agreement agreement, though the army in a different location. Syria now is conditioning its return to the talks on a written Israeli consent to fully depart from the Heights, which Israel immediately rejected; Syria furthermore, insists that any Syrian-Israeli agreement will be tied to a similar agreement with Lebanon. It’s all back to square one.

Cost to Americans

Still on the US list of countries supporting terrorism, Syria is ineligible to receive any American assistance, if an agreement is concluded. Not so Israel, which could count on receiving even more American money than it already enjoys. After the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel received $4.8 billion from the United States and more than $64,267 billion since in total assistance, of which $57,499 billion are in grants, the Link Magazine, September-October, 1997 reported. Ze’ev Schiff of Israel’s leading daily, Haaretz, wrote on January 7 that an Israeli-Syrian agreement will cost the US $17.4 billion and that, altogether, Israel will request between $65 and 70 billion for the Golan and the Palestinian final agreement to cover various withdrawal expenditures. When these huge sums are paid, Americans will have paid twice: once when Israel settled occupied Arab lands with American money in violation of international and US law, and once more to undo what was illegal and should not have been done in the first place.

Even though Israeli leaders know that peace with Syria means peace with most of the Arab world, they would still rather hold on to the Heights and guarantee continuation of the conflict than withdraw for a secure settlement. A member of an Omani delegation in Israel affirmed that “peace with Syria means peace with 22 Arab states,” Haaretz reported (January 11). But with no effective Arab or, more importantly, US pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Heights and no repercussions for keeping them, Israel is left to respond to its home constituency, which opposes the withdrawal. The stalled negotiations are already having repercussions for Israel and Lebanon, as four Israeli soldiers, the deputy commander of the SLA and a number of Lebanese civilians were killed and hurt by exchange of fire this week. Barak’s election campaign crisis will have repercussions as well, as he may try to pacify the public by adopting the popular view of no compromise with Syria.

Reading the editorials of the mainstream American papers, one can easily conclude that Syria is all to blame for the setback in the pursuit of Middle East peace. And the US government assessment is not far behind the press either. The short-lived euphoria that kicked in with the start of the talks is now replaced with a more sober and tragic consequence and no general appreciation of the extent to which Syria moved to regain its occupied land and come to a rapprochement with Israel.

How to cite this article:

Ghassan Bishara "Israeli-Syrian Talks: Back In a Deep Freeze," Middle East Report Online, February 01, 2000.

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