Those Israel-Syria Peace Talks
Gabriel Kolko’s work as a historian casts a giant shadow, but his recent account of "Israel, Iran and the Bush Administration" (CounterPunch, February 10/11) is open to challenge. The Israeli peace talks with Syria, which Kolko finds of "enormous significance," are a thrice-told tale which has not yet come true, least of all because of intervention by the United States.
Syria is the historic heartland of Arab nationalism, and Syria’s late president Hafez al-Asad, who ruled from 1970 until his death in 2000, held steadfastly to his ideal of justice for the Syrian and Arab cause in the conflict with Israel. His abiding concern for Syria was securing Israel’s total withdrawal from territory it conquered in the 1967 war, the Golan Heights. This he defined as withdrawal to the pre-war, June 4, 1967 line, rather than the 1923 border under the League of Nations Mandates, which he always viewed as a line drawn by imperialists. The 1923 line was the border of the Jewish state with Syria in the 1947 UN partition resolution. The June 4 line was the 1949 armistice line, plus and minus demilitarized zones which Israel and Syria had absorbed, and had served as a border until the war. After the 1973 war, Asad accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and offered a non-belligerency agreement, with peace treaty to follow, if Israel were to withdraw to the June 4 line, in a general Arab-Israeli settlement. He repeated these terms at intervals, in worsening circumstances for Syria’s interests. The Egypt-Israel treaty deprived Syria of its most important ally; the Lebanese civil war and Israeli invasion of 1982 were great political, economic and social strains; Syria’s chief patron, the USSR, reduced its support and urged a political solution, under Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s regime. By the late 1980s Asad thus sought more actively a settlement with his principal adversary.
Asad indicated more flexible procedures for negotiations, and Syria restored relations with Egypt, broken since its treaty with Israel, indicating a desire to join the US-backed "peace process." Syria participated in the US-led war on Iraq against its arch-rival Saddam Hussein, following the latter’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and in July 1991 announced it would attend the US-backed peace conference at Madrid in the fall, without requiring commitments from Israel in advance. The government of Yitzhak Shamir responded by announcing plans to double the number of settlers in the Golan; 69 Knesset members signed a statement promising to keep Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, which Israel had annexed in 1981.
Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party became prime minister in June, 1992. The Golan Heights settlements, indeed the Golan conquest, had been a Labor project. As the 1967 war progressed, and Egypt was defeated in the Sinai, there was overwhelming pressure from prime minister Eshkol and kibbutz/Palmach alumni in the government and IDF northern command, backed by residents near the Golan, to extend the war against Syria. The Palmach was the pre-1948 elite military force, mainly from the kibbutzim, the collective settlements. Defense minister Moshe Dayan, another alumnus, alone staved off this formidable lobby, arguing that Syria, which had not advanced from its Golan positions after its air force had been destroyed, posed no threat, and that the conquest of Syrian territory would complicate peace prospects. The Israeli settlers "were thinking about the heights’ land," not security, Dayan said. Israeli intelligence then intercepted a despairing message from Egypt to Syria, warning them Israel was concentrating forces for an attack and to seek a cease-fire with the UN, and Dayan ordered the attack, but in 1976 regretted it for his earlier reasons. The Golan settlements were Israel’s first in the conquered territories, begun in July, by young kibbutzniks, under the patronage of senior Labor figures. Most Labor leaders had spoken categorically against withdrawal, Rabin included, and a Golan faction arose, the Third Way. By the early 1990s there were 17,000 Israeli Jews in over 30 settlements, representing an investment of $2.5 billion, excluding the largest settlement of 7,000. The area was considered the Switzerland of Israel, including the slopes of 2,814 meter Mount Hermon (Jebel al-Sheik) on the north.
Under Rabin’s government, as British writer Patrick Seale stated, "the Syrian track was virtually on ice from June 1992 to August 1993, one of several interruptions and suspensions." In August, 1993, Rabin sent Asad, via US secretary of state Warren Christopher, a secret, oral message promising that "Israel is ready for full withdrawal from the Golan provided its requirements on security and normalization are met." This was the US and Syrian view; the assurance was clarified a year later to mean withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line. Clinton later told Asad that "I have a commitment in my pocket from Prime Minister Rabin for full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line." Israel-Syria talks until Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995 were based on this assumption. When Shimon Peres succeeded Rabin, Christopher told Asad of Peres’s promise to Clinton that he "stands by the commitment to full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line, subject to the same understanding [meeting Israel's needs] that Prime Minister Rabin made." An Israeli journalist noted the agreement in a 1996 book on Peres, and in February, 2000, prime minister Ehud Barak told the cabinet that such an agreement had been made, as reported in Haaretz.
Israel’s "needs" in August, 1993 included a peace treaty, with full normalization of relations, with limited withdrawal and no dismantling of settlements, followed by a five-year "test period," with further withdrawal then subject to an Israeli referendum. Syria would also rein in Hizballah, expel the "rejectionist" Palestinian factions, and end its strategic relationship with Iran. "Amazingly, Asad did not reject Rabin’s whole proposal as a bad joke," and made counter-proposals, but Rabin chose to believe that his package had been rejected. Clinton kept Syria engaged through diplomatic contacts, speaking repeatedly with Asad on the phone, and finally meeting him in Geneva in January, 1994. Asad announced Syria’s "strategic choice" for peace, and Clinton was "deeply impressed with Asad’s commitment to peace with Israel." In the spring of 1994, Christopher made another round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Damascus, and eventually delivering the assurance on the June 4 line. Clinton called Asad to impress this on him, and Asad agreed to further meetings in Washington.
Security was the chief topic. "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." Rabin proposed to retain the monitoring station on Mount Hermon and to determine military dispositions in Syria, including a DMZ between the Golan and Damascus, when Israel had great qualitative superiority in US armaments and military efficacy. Asad preferred arrangements within 5-7 kilometers and secured a one-page agreement restricting them "to the relevant areas on both sides of the boundary." On June 6, 1995, Clinton assured Asad about the "pocket commitment" on the June 4 line, to encourage chief of staff talks in Washington, in late June, where Syria did suggest some flexibility on military dispositions. Yet there were leaks of secret Israeli documents prepared for the talks in the Israeli press, and Israel again proposed retaining the Mount Hermon station, when Syria thought other means of monitoring had been agreed on. Syria’s latent suspicions about Rabin’s obsessive secrecy and ambivalence were revived, and talks effectively ended until Shimon Peres succeeded Rabin as prime minister upon the latter’s assassination in November.
Peres faced party pressure to call elections while Labor had support from Rabin’s murder. He declined in order to continue the Syria talks, but abandoned Rabin’s sequential approach for parallel negotiations, in order to achieve an agreement quickly. As noted, Peres repeated to the US Rabin’s promise on the June 4 line, if Israel’s concerns were met. Talks resumed at Wye Plantation in Maryland in late December with a second round in late January, with issue teams holding simultaneous discussions. The head of the Syrian delegation as well as his Israeli counterpart averred that real progress had been made, yet security and final border issues were still outstanding. In any event, the Zionist leopard could not change its spots.
In December, Israel-Hizballah hostilities flared in occupied south Lebanon, and Syria intervened twice with Hizballah to prevent escalation. Yet IDF and government officials (apart from Peres) issued ominous warnings. In early January Peres ordered the assassination of Hamas’s leading bombmaker, despite the truce Hamas had been observing. Opportunists within Labor began to campaign against Peres’s peace policy, including foreign minister Ehud Barak; the Third Way Golan faction formed a new party; Peres announced new elections on February 11. On February 25-6, Hamas began its revenge bombing campaign, and Israel broke off the Wye third round on March 4. Peres lost, despite ordering April’s brutal Operation Grapes of Wrath against south Lebanon, which was "wildly popular among Jewish Israelis," because the Arab voters abstained. Victor Bibi Netanyahu then proclaimed "three noes," including no withdrawal from the Golan, "peace [not land] for peace," and "negotiations without preconditions," cancelling the June 4 promise, which had leaked into the press. Syria refused, and Netanyahu began further development in the Golan.
Seale argued that Rabin’s August 1993 proposal to Asad "was a political deception, a ruse of war." It was "tailored to engage Asad just enough to blunt his attack on Oslo," where talks with the PLO were coming to fruition. Israeli commentator Tanya Reinhart argued that Rabin secured peace for Israel in occupied Lebanon: "Syria must restrain Hizballah to prove the seriousness of its intentions," and did. In these views, Rabin used the US to manipulate Syria. Peres’s "New Middle East" of economic integration was feared by Arab critics as another mode of Israeli domination. Peres, protege of Ben-Gurion and 50-year Labor Zionist veteran, effortlessly switched from statesmanship to war that spring.
Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in May 1999, running on his military record as most-decorated soldier and former chief of staff, the latest general-politician. Barak had warned of "painful concessions" for peace with Syria, but pledged a referendum; opinion polls on a Golan withdrawal were split. His coalition included 3 parties which had supported Netanyahu. Asad and Barak exchanged compliments in interviews. The crucial questions were the withdrawal line, and security arrangements, as before. Syria proposed resuming talks on the basis of the June 4 commitment. After strenuous diplomacy, on December 8 Clinton announced the resumption of talks "from the point where they left off," ambiguously, as no commitment had been given. On December 19, Barak said he "wanted negotiations to focus on security and normalization before dealing with final borders and water." At the talks, in January at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Syria accepted a ground monitoring station on Mount Hermon, and suggested that the June 4 line could be moved eastward on the northeast shore of Lake Tiberias, giving Israel the entire shoreline and space for a road. However, Israel would not convene the border and water committees, to avoiding discussing withdrawal, and Syria suspended work in the security and normalization committees. The US drafted a statement of results to date, and talks adjourned. Syria leaked a summary noting its willingness to adjust the June 4 line and accept a monitoring station. Israel leaked the US document, spelling out Syria’s concessions without Israeli withdrawal, which embarrassed the US and Syria. Syria then declined more talks "unless withdrawal topped the agenda and there was a reasonable chance of progress." On February 28, Haaretz and the New York Times reported that Barak had informed the Israeli cabinet of Rabin’s June 4 assurance. With this and other news Clinton persuaded Asad to meet him in Geneva on March 26, where "Asad had every reason to think that he would hear, finally, that Barak had agreed to reaffirm the Rabin pocket commitment." Instead, Clinton recited Barak’s proposals, inter alia, that the border be moved east, in places beyond the 1923 line; Asad felt betrayed; Syrian officials blamed Dennis Ross for "allow[ing] Barak to believe that Asad could made to yield to pressure," and the Syrian-Israeli track effectively died.
Clinton blamed Barak for the failure at Shepherdstown, and himself for doing Barak’s bidding at Geneva like a "wooden Indian," in his words. One US official felt that Asad had been seriously misled about a June 4 commitment. Seale stated that "responsibility for the failure of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations must rest largely with Prime Minister Barak." He also faulted Asad for not "soften[ing] the Israeli public’s deep distrust" with gestures, but noted "a more fundamental reason for the failure," Israel’s "view that, because it is stronger than its neighbors and enjoys unlimited American support, it can impose peace on its terms." Reinhart argued that Asad had few illusions about a June 4 commitment, but was threatened with a "Kosovo style" air war, which had just concluded. Barak "mentioned his Kosovo vision on several occasions." While at Shepherdstown, Barak had sought a $17 billion arms package including cruise missiles and 50 F-16 fighter-bombers, and Israel held war games on the Golan.
Hafez al-Asad died on June 10, 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar. Ariel Sharon succeeded Barak in March, 2001, and proclaimed that "the danger of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights has passed." If the Clinton Administration had been eager to help Israel impose its terms on Syria, the Bush Administration had its own diplomacy. It named Syria to the "axis of evil," threatened "regime change", opposed or implemented sanctions under the "Syria Accountability Act" which the Israel lobby passed in Congress, condemned or encouraged Syria’s policy toward Iraq, and sought to lessen Syrian influence in Lebanon, especially after the Hariri assassination. This suited Sharon’s purposes. During his reconquista of the occupied territories, Sharon blamed Syria, which hosted secular and Islamic Palestinian opposition groups, for the Palestinian resistance. He threatened and overflew and attacked Syrian(and Lebanese) sites in Lebanon and Syria, over Hizballah activity related mainly to the Shaba’ Farms region still held by Israel, which would have been returned in a settlement with Syria.
The pressure elicited Syrian peace signals, public and private, of which the unofficial talks between private citizens in Switzerland, disclosed earlier this year, cited by Kolko, were one. In November 2003, Asad reportedly offered to Israel, through a third party, to rein in Hizballah if Israel ceased reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, which was dismissed. Asad followed this with a very forthcoming interview in the New York Times on December 1. Sharon demanded sweeping measures against "terrorism," and announced "a $62 million plan to double the Jewish settler population in the Golan Heights within three years." This overlapped with the initiative reported by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz that Kolko refers to. In early 2004 Sharon’s office told Alon Liel, former Israeli diplomat, that they "didn’t care whether Liel and his friends sat down with the Syriansbut no negotiations. The Israeli reason (or excuse): The Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria." In September, 2005, Martin Indyk met in Damascus with Asad, who did not require "preconditions" (the June 4 line) for future talks, which Indyk called "a significant message to Israel." Sharon replied that the Syrians were trying to "make life easier for themselves."
Eldar calls the US the "Israeli reason (or excuse)" for declining Syria talks. The state of Israel was founded due to US Jewish political pressure, and Israel has never hesitated to disagree with Washington when it suited. As the above outline of Syria-Israel peace talks shows, Israel has not once negotiated in good faith for a withdrawal to the June 4 line or one based on it. A society that can elect a war criminal like Ariel Sharon as leader needs no encouragement against peace. "The hegemonic discourse of the last decade which began, after Rabin’s assassination, with the election of Netanyahu and reached a peak with Sharon’s reconquest of the occupied territories, had been supported by virtually the entire Israeli population."
According to Eldar, the last Swiss meeting was during the Lebanon war, and broke off because Syria requested a meeting at the sub-ministerial level with Israel, with a US official present, which Israel refused. Last fall, before the contacts were disclosed, Asad’s signals had become so public that Israeli politicians felt obliged to comment, most negatively, led by Olmert. There were, as Kolko notes, Israeli reports of a US role. Dore Gold, Sharon’s ambassador to the UN, attacked the "hypocrisy in recent declarations regarding the influence of the American position on the possibility of Israeli-Syrian talksWould those same commentators respond similarly had the Administrationadopted the Baker-Hamilton report, which requires a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights?" Gideon Levy wrote bitterly in Haaretz of "Operation Peace for the [Golan] Winery:" "Israel does not want peace with Syria-period." In one poll, 58 per cent of the public favored talks with Syria, but 64 per cent opposed giving up all of the Golan Heights. "The United States" does not oppose Israeli talks with Syria. James Baker followed the Baker-Hamilton report’s advice with testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations committee on January 30, as Kolko notes. Israel-Syria talks would be favored by the many military, diplomatic and intelligence officials past and present who oppose the Administration’s war policy, by the public, which opposed it in the last congressional election, including the US Jewish public, who oppose the Iraq war by a high margin.
Syria’s fate is obviously bound up with the Iraq war and the buildup against Iran. Kolko deprecates Israel’s animus against Iran as a political ploy to distract the public from scandal and corruption. Yet Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and Iran is a national phobia. "If the annual Herzliya Conference [north of Tel Aviv] is any indication, the Israeli establishment, though reeling from one political scandal to another, has only one thing on its mind: Iran. Panel after panel declaimed, ad nauseam, the ‘existential threat’ emanating from the ‘messianic totalitarian government’ in Teheran." Speakers included prime minister Olmert, Israeli politicians and security personnel, and European and North American officials. Bernard Lewis, doyen of academic orientalism, who invented the "clash of civilizations" which Samuel Huntington popularized, was like Sam Cooke returned to reprise his greatest hits for an audience which knew only the bubblegum versions. The "general consensus," after duly weighing the alternatives and risks, was that if Iran’s "race to acquire a nuclear weapon" outpaces "regime change or reform," "an overwhelming military strike by the USwill become inevitable." Or by Israel, which has negotiated US permission to overfly Iraq to strike Iran on its own. In an Israeli poll on November 9, 49 per cent answered yes, and 46% no, to the question, "If it turns out that all the international diplomatic efforts fail, should Israel attack the Iranian nuclear facilities even alone and without international support?"
Kolko is obviously right about the lethality of modern armaments and the suicidal course Israel and the US are pursuing, but because it is logical, a benign resolution is hardly inevitable. The disrepute of the Israeli establishment is matched by the Bush Administration’s. Yet the loss of Congress in the mid-term elections, and the rebuke of the Baker-Hamilton report, were met with "troop surge" by the neoconservatives and radical nationalists who planned the Iraq war and the Iran buildup. These forces have found minimal diplomacy with Syria and Iran over Iraq hard to avoid, but they are gripped by reactionary dread, like Hitler in the late 1930s, obsessed with "encirclement" by Germany’s "enemies," and with a dwindling opportunity for war. Nothing is determined, further catastrophe may yet be avoided, and Israel-Syria talks may even take place. In any case, Israel is not a victim of the United States, but of its own striving for power, in concert with the US organized Jewish community, and with the US government.
A PDF version of this article with notes is at
HARRY CLARK can be reached at email@example.com