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The Brink of Peace:
The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations
Itamar Rabinovich

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1998, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to permissions@press.princeton.edu

Chapter One

Trying to Recapture Yesterday's Shadow

To the students of past history and contemporary politics nothing is more beguiling than the myriad threads that run across the invisible line which separates the two. Yesterday's events become the stuff of today's controversies, and current agendas affect the lenses through which the past is viewed and written. For three and a half years, the Israeli labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres negotiated a peace settlement with Hafiz al-Asad's Syrian Ba'th regime. Much progress was made but an agreement was not concluded before the Israeli elections of May 29, 1996, that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

    The unfinished negotiation stands as a scintillating and significant tale that should be told in its own right. But it also presents an important, immediate problem on the current agenda of Middle Eastern diplomacy. The Israeli-Arab peace process continues, and Israel and Syria are bound to have an active relationship in its context. They can negotiate, they can fight (directly or indirectly), and they can do both simultaneously, but they cannot and will not ignore each other.

    In the immediate aftermath of the May 29 elections, these issues came to be addressed in the most fundamental fashion. As leader of the opposition, Israel's new prime minister had denounced his predecessors' policies toward Syria (among other things). His election campaign had promised the Israeli voter that, unlike Shimon Peres, who was liable to bring Israel down from the Golan Heights, Netanyahu would either construct new paradigms for the negotiations or find a different way of dealing with Syria. Once elected, the new prime minister was forced to adopt a more realistic view of Israel's relationship with Syria and, more broadly, of his ability to reshape the Israeli-Arab peace process.

    This evolution was matched by the accommodation Hafiz al-Asad and the rest of the Arab world had to make to the political about-turn in Israel. Soon enough both the Netanyahu government and the Asad regime, assisted by the Clinton administration, were busy dealing with the questions of when and how the Israeli-Syrian negotiations could be resumed. Although Syria argued that the negotiations should be resumed "at the point at which they had been interrupted" in March 1996, and that important binding agreements had been made in the course of the negotiation, Israel's position was that the negotiations should be resumed "without prior conditions," and that nothing of a binding nature had been agreed between the two countries. It was in this context that an extraordinary press interview granted in January 1997 by Walid Mu`allim, Syria's ambassador to Washington and the chief negotiator with Israel, should be read. This was the longest and most detailed account of the 1992-1996 negotiations offered by a Syrian official or, in many respects, by any other knowledgeable source.

    Mu`allim's revelations were clearly designed to buttress the Syrian argument that the negotiations should be resumed "at the point at which they had been interrupted" and the Syrian claim that by that time Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Golan to the "lines of June 4, 1967." As Mu`allim put it, "after Rabin became prime minister in June 1992, we still insisted on discussing withdrawal only. When Rabin finally realized that the Syrians would not move a step ahead in discussing any of the other elements of a peace settlement before being convinced of Israel's intention of full withdrawal, he made the opening. That was in August 1993." As an astute, experienced diplomat, the Syrian ambassador was aware of the problems inherent in his discussion of the intimate details of a negotiation he was seeking to resume, which was of concern to both his American hosts and Israeli interlocutors. He therefore explained that "it was not President Asad who first announced the agreement of full withdrawal. Our side only mentioned it because it had been made public on the Israeli side, following the publication in September of a book in Hebrew giving an accurate account from Israeli sources of what happened. The Egyptian president Mubarak had said in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, that Rabin had informed him of his readiness for full withdrawal to the line of June 4, 1967."

    Some of the threads that run through the tissue of this story are these: the actual details of Rabin's negotiation with Syria and the need to deal with them through two transitions of power in Israel within less than one year; the American and Egyptian roles; and the current debate between Syria and Israel on the factual and legal bases on which negotiations should be resumed. The Israeli peg chosen by Ambassador Mu`allim was a biography of Shimon Peres written by the journalist Orly Azulay-Katz under the title The Man Who Could Not Win. The book was indeed published by Israel's mass-circulation paper Yediot Ahronot in September 1996. Some chapters were serialized in the paper and some of the highlights were published first as a news item in the paper's front page on September 13.

    The accent of the story was on Rabin's relationship with Peres. As the author had it, soon after Rabin's assassination, his successor, Peres, began to prepare for his meeting with President Clinton on the day of the funeral. Out of Rabin's safe, in the Ministry of Defense, "computer printouts and top secret documents" were brought to his desk. Peres discovered that Rabin had concealed from him the most important details of the negotiations with Syria and found, to his astonishment, how far-reaching those details were. Thus, according to Azulay-Katz, Rabin had given President Clinton a promise that in return for full peace he would be willing to withdraw to the June 4 lines. The president and the prime minister, according to the same account, had agreed that this proposal be presented to the Syrians as an American initiative. In the aftermath of the conversation with Rabin, Clinton instructed his associates to write a "non-paper" summing up this matter. According to the same set of revelations, a few days before Rabin gave his promise to the Americans, he was informed by them that Asad was willing to accept all the security arrangements that Israel had asked for. Following Rabin's promise, a statement of principles was put together between Israel and Syria with American help, which comprised the details of withdrawal, arrangements concerning water, the security arrangements, and normalization of relations between the two countries.

    As will be seen below, what the Syrians chose to characterize as "an accurate account" did contain some of the important and relevant facts, but in many places it was far off the mark. The book itself, once published, turned out to be quite awkward for Peres, contrary to the expectations of those who had clearly helped the author in researching it.

    The book did convey many of the complexities of the Rabin-Peres relationship, and the main theme of its opening chapter and of the newspaper article drawn from it was not new. In fact, a few days after Rabin's assassination and Peres's assumption of power, a story appeared in the Israeli press citing sources close to Peres who complained about discovering unknown details regarding the negotiations with Syria. This original story, as well as the fact that it had no sequel at the time, pointed to some of the conflicting forces at work during the transition from Rabin to Peres. Rabin conducted the negotiations with Syria personally, and the crucial details of the negotiations were kept within a very limited circle. The prime minister and the foreign minister used to meet quite frequently alone, with no notes taken or record kept. This channel of communication was preserved even during periods of great tension in their political and personal relationship. We do not know to what extent Rabin had briefed Peres on the details of the Syrian negotiations.

    My impression at the time was that it was not Peres himself but someone in the immediate circle around him who saw fit to leak the story to the media. It may have been the reflection of genuine anger and surprise, but it also occurred to me then that members of the circle around Peres thought that since negotiations with Syria were bound to continue, it would be more politic to present the concessions that would have to be made as having been made by the late Rabin. Later, wiser counsel seems to have prevailed, or maybe Peres himself interfered, and the thread was dropped. Peres understood that he was wearing Rabin's mantle and that, whatever acrimony had characterized their relationship in the past, history decreed that in the aftermath of the assassination their partnership would become the dominant element of their remembered relationship.

    The September 1996 publication of Orly Azulay-Katz's book picked up the thread that had been dropped during the previous November. More significantly, it generated a wave of discussion of the unknown aspects of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations under Rabin and Peres, and provided the Syrians with an alibi for publicizing their own version of what had been a secret negotiation.

    It is interesting that the Syrians had not seized an earlier, less obvious opportunity to bring these issues into the open. In mid-July, Prime Minister Netanyahu's foreign policy advisor had complained to Israel's radio that upon assuming office he had discovered details concerning the activities of the previous government "that were hitherto unknown and caused him a bitter disappointment." The radio's correspondent suggested that the concessions alluded to by the prime minister's advisor "were apparently connected to promises given to the Americans with regard to the negotiations with Syria." It appeared at the time that Prime Minister Netanyahu's aides were going through a process similar to the one that the circle around Peres had gone through during the previous November. There was, of course, one major difference. Peres was Rabin's partner and genuine successor, whereas Netanyahu was free from emotional or political commitments to the man he had just defeated. He clearly was not seeking to delegitimize his rival, but he was grappling with the difficulties of the peace process, and the temptation to explain how his hands had been tied by promises given by his predecessors was evident.

    When Netanyahu himself was asked a few days after the September revelations to comment on them, he actually provided an accurate description of the give-and-take in this matter: "He [Rabin] spoke of a hypothetical possibility provided that the Syrians meet a series of conditions which in fact--they had not."

    The first public statement by President Asad in these matters was made after the publication of Orly Azulay-Katz's book in Israel. On September 25, the Syrian president granted an interview to the American journalist Rowland Evans that was broadcast on CNN's "Evans and Novak" program. The timing was not accidental. Evans was invited to come from Washington on short notice in order to conduct the interview. In the event, the publication was completely overshadowed by the "tunnel incident" and the upheaval that followed it, but Asad's presentation was very clear. In response to the first question put to him, Asad offered a lengthy exposition of the foundations of the Madrid process, and then explained that

great efforts were exerted, and then progress was made and achievements accomplished which turned into commitments by the parties and rights for them. Within the framework of those commitments, agreement was reached between Syria and Israel on the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan up to 4 June 1967 lines. After that we moved to complete discussion of the other elements of peace. This has taken place under the supervision and with the knowledge of the United States. It goes without saying that the present Israeli government has to abide by an agreement reached by the former government, which was a legitimate government, and so according to our considerations, it represented Israel. Then came the recent developments in Israel and the change of government there. Once the results of the Israeli elections were announced, the new Israeli prime minister appeared to be obliterating all those principles and eliminating all efforts, commitments and rights. Thus, he canceled the peace process entirely. Therefore, talks can only be resumed once he makes up his mind on the peace strategy and responds to its requirements.

    As far as public statements were concerned, Mu`allim was right when he explained in his own interview that Syria's revelations about negotiations came after the Hebrew-language publication but, in fact, the Syrians had been sharing their version with foreign leaders and diplomats prior to mid-September. To cite one example: on September 8 the Japanese foreign minister, Yukihiko Ikada, visited Damascus and was told by his Syrian hosts that they had an agreement with the previous Israeli government about withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, lines.

    What the Syrians were doing was a clear symptom of their predicament in the aftermath of the Israeli elections. During the previous three and a half years, Asad had conducted himself as if time were no constraint. Many foreign visitors advised him to hurry up and conclude negotiations, first with Rabin and then with Peres. They reminded him that elections in Israel were scheduled for October 1996, that public opinion polls pointed to a narrow margin at best for Labor, and they recommended that he make a deal with Rabin (and then Peres) before an election which could be won by Netanyahu, who had a very different policy toward Syria. Asad was not moved by such arguments. He may very well have seen them as a pressure tactic, or he may have calculated that if Labor's margin was so narrow and its prospect of victory so uncertain, there was no point in making a deal with Labor. Rabin was insisting on a deal that would be completed over several years. Why would Asad be interested in a deal whereby he would give Israel peace and recognition in turn for a small part of the Golan, and wait for the implementation of a larger territorial concession until after an election that Labor was not certain of winning? As for Peres in late 1995 and early 1996, he was ready to make and implement an agreement within a briefer time span. Mu`allim, in the interview quoted above, complained that if Rabin was too deliberate, Peres was too bold and swift: "He was in a hurry, he wanted to enter the elections with the Israeli-Syrian agreement in his hand. He wanted to `fly high and fast' as he used to say. I used to say to the Israeli counterpart that it is important to fly, but it is also very important to know where and when to land--you can't continue to fly high and fast, we have our public opinion and we need to sell the agreement to them to accept it."

    Be that as it may, after the May 29 Israeli elections, Asad must have realized that he had badly miscalculated, and he was now trying to capture yesterday's shadow. Netanyahu was critical of Israel's agreement with the Palestinians, but Oslo I and II were signed agreements, and he was formally committed to them. On the Syrian track, there was one "non-paper" and a whole host of hypothetical and conditional statements. The Syrians were determined to persuade the rest of the world that at least some of these were of a binding nature. They may or may not have realized that by claiming publicly that they had a binding agreement with the previous government on a full withdrawal from the Golan, they were tying their own hands. How could Asad conclude an agreement in the future that would offer Syria less than it had, allegedly, obtained in the past?

    It is ironic that while the Syrians were busy building their case, on September 18, 1996, the American secretary of state, Warren Christopher, gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a letter in which he reportedly wrote that he, as the secretary of state, did not regard the "non-paper" on "the aims and principles of the security arrangements," reached between Israel and Syria in May 1995, as legally binding. This letter was kept secret until leaked to the Israeli press in January 1997. Obtaining it was quite a coup for Netanyahu who, as the opposition's leader, had criticized the only agreement made between Israel and Syria under the Labor government. But the ramifications of Christopher's letter were far-reaching. If a "non-paper" that represented a real agreement, albeit unsigned and informal, between Israel and Syria was not binding, then clearly the much looser legacy of the negotiation was even less binding.

    It is interesting to speculate on the reasons that led Secretary Christopher to send this letter to the Israeli prime minister. He would not have sent it had he not thought that it represented the legal position as it was, but it is difficult to avoid the feeling that it was also a way of venting some of his frustration accumulated during three and a half years of work on the Syrian-Israeli track.

    Unaware of Christopher's letter, the Syrian effort to reinforce and document their case continued. In November 1996, speaking in a joint press conference with President Mubarak, Asad explained that "we are talking about an agreement, when both parties agree about something, particularly when there is also international sponsorship and as long as they are, they are supposed to be committed to what has been agreed because these all were agreements [that] have been made under the umbrella and sponsorship of both co-sponsors. This is political activity for the sake of the peace process and it need not turn into a debate whether it is a signed or unsigned agreement as if we are defending an issue in court.... When it comes to peace, things are different from verbal game and casuistry."

    At the end of December, Asad granted an interview to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. The Egyptian journalist asked him how true the rumors were "that Rabin had given the Americans something written in which he confirmed his readiness to withdrawal from the whole of the Golan." Asad's reply was:

I am not familiar with the question of whether there are written papers. We were speaking to them in the presence of the American side, and the major role was played by the Americans between us and them, and after four years the Americans informed us that Rabin had finally been persuaded of the necessity of withdrawal from the whole Golan. This was a fact, and it was reaffirmed by Peres after Rabin, and then we entered into the issue of security arrangements and we spent a year arguing about them. At the end I suggested that we agree on the foundations and not enter into the debate, namely, that security is for both sides and not for one side on the expense of the other and that this arrangement would be equal for the two parties. We agreed on these foundations and began with the details, and then came Netanyahu.

    Ambassador Mu`allim's interview in January 1997 represents the most thorough and the most ambitious Syrian effort to substantiate and document Syria's version and Syria's claim. Subsequently President Asad himself offered a slightly different version of the course of events. Asad spoke on August 12, 1997, to a group of Israeli Arabs who had been invited to Syria. At that point Asad had lost faith in Netanyahu's intentions and was reaching out to what he viewed as sympathetic segments of the Israeli political spectrum--the Arab population and the Labor party. As he had not done on previous occasions, he spoke in unqualified terms about his negotiations with the Labor government: "We found that the Labor party government had a new tone and we were under the impression that they wanted peace." Asad then repeated the claim that "in a certain phase of the talks we arrived at basic issues including a commitment to withdraw from the Golan." Aware of the question that had by then been raised repeatedly, Asad raised it himself: "You might ask: Now that they have responded to this Syrian demand, why was peace not achieved?" His answer: "Many issues that constituted the elements of peace were still pending. These issues include the elements of security and other elements, and all of them are basic. The security issues might make the regained land something that is not worthwhile, and also might discount dignity and rights." Asad was, in fact, trying to say that he had an Israeli commitment for his half of the bargain, while he had yet to agree to Israel's demands. He should be the first to know that this was a weak argument.

    Against this background, it was curious to note Syria's failure in late August 1997 to seize the opportunity provided by yet another leak in the Israeli system. On August 28, the Israeli military commentator Ze'ev Schiff published in the daily Ha'aretz extensive quotations from the minutes of several conversations between Rabin and Christopher and one conversation between Rabin and American negotiator Dennis Ross regarding the Syrian demand for full withdrawal and subsequent demand for withdrawal to the line of June 4. Schiff was careful to conclude that Rabin had agreed to discuss the latter Syrian demand. His revelations were naturally rich with detail and color, but they did not alter the fundamental perception of the 1992-1996 negotiations as it had crystallized by the summer of 1997. And yet it would have been natural for the Syrians to take full advantage of the revelations in order to seek to buttress their case. It is possible that on the eve of Madeleine Albright's first visit to Damascus they decided to appear at their statesmanlike best.

    Prime Minister Netanyahu was on a visit to the Far East at the time and, when asked about the revelations, his brief response was that "it should be understood that there is no contractual agreement between Israel and Syria that is binding from Israel's point of view. The U.S. understands it too, so that the fundamental question does not concern matters that were discussed between various parties in the past but matters that will be discussed between the governments of Israel and Syria in the future."

    It clearly emerges from all of these reports that August 1993 was a crucial watershed in the history of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Prime Minister Rabin then took an initiative, and authorized Secretary Christopher to explore in a hypothetical way Syria's readiness for a comprehensive agreement with Israel in which the possibility of withdrawal from the Golan Heights was put on the agenda. President Asad did not quite pick up the glove, and Secretary Christopher, returning from Damascus, where he had gone with Rabin's offer, carried with him what was clearly a Syrian bargaining position. Rabin's timing was not accidental. When he spoke to Christopher in August 1993, he knew that an Israeli agreement with the PLO was being completed in Oslo. He never said so explicitly, but his move toward Syria must have been an attempt to find out whether he had a real Syrian option to weigh against the Palestinian alternative. Asad's disappointing response persuaded Rabin that the Syrian option was at best problematic, and he chose the Palestinian option that was being completed in Oslo. The choice had a profound effect on the whole Arab-Israeli peace process of these years. Rabin remained skeptical of Asad's willingness to offer or agree to a settlement that would also meet with his own criteria, but he continued to offer him opportunities to prove him wrong throughout 1994 and 1995.

    The August 1993 give-and-take will be described in detail below. But like all good stories, the story of the Syrian-Israeli negotiation should be told from its inception.

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