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August 12, 1999 No.
21

Israel-Syrian Negotiations, Part I: From Hope to Impasse

By: Yigal Carmon and Yotam Feldner*

Ehud Barak's election as Prime Minister of Israel created great optimism about the possibility of a rapid resumption of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The main obstacle preventing it was Syria's demand to "resume the negotiations from the point where they stopped." The Syrians claim that in 1995 the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin committed himself, to the American administration, to an Israeli withdrawal to the borders of June 4, 1967. Israel has never agreed to this interpretation.

The two parties recently had an indirect exchange that led to rising hopes for a fast resumption of direct talks. These hopes were later dashed and presently Israel and Syria are back at square one.

Hopes Rise with Barak's Election

The optimism for the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and Syria was based on Barak's pre-election commitment to pull the IDF out of South Lebanon within a year, as part of a larger settlement with Syria. Barak, who is considered Rabin's successor, emphasized that the strategic importance of a settlement with Syria exceeds that of a settlement with the Palestinians.[1]

The optimism peaked with British journalist, Patrick Seale's visit to Israel. Seale, Assad's biographer, is a confidant of the Syrian President. While in Israel, he was granted the only foreign-policy meeting Barak held before he was sworn in as premier. Seale was also introduced to Barak's senior advisors, Tsvi Shtauber and Dani Yatom, and taken on a tour in the Golan by Uri Sagui. Sagui, known in Israel as an advocate of the "Syrian Option," was mentioned in the Israeli press as Barak's candidate to lead negotiations with Syria. In these meetings, Seale heard from Barak that he was ready for the "Peace of the Brave" and "the painful decisions it entails."[2] "Barak," said Seale, "is already preparing Israeli public opinion for the difficult decisions."[3] "Israel and Syria" Seale concluded, "have never been so ready for a settlement."[4]

In his messages, through Seale, to President Assad, Barak emphasized that the failure of the negotiations in Rabin's time was a missed opportunity due to Syria's misunderstanding of Israel's position. Barak also tried to change his own image as a hard-liner, due to positions Barak expressed in 1994 meetings with Syrian Chief of Staff General Shihabi. Seale left Israel with the impression that a significant change had occurred in Israeli attitudes and that there is now a readiness in Israel for a settlement with Syria.[5]

Seale's reports lifted Assad's expectations. In a rare move, Assad praised Barak, describing him as "a strong and honest man who wants to make peace with Syria and who operates according to a well planned strategy." Assad told Seale that Israel's change of government altered the situation completely. Barak's rise to power marked a shift in the Israeli public toward the center and that the extent of his electoral victory enables Barak - who is "different from Netanyahu" [6] - to move the process forward. Assad was even more forthcoming. Previously, he had demanded that negotiations be resumed "from the point [where] they stopped." Now, in an interview with Seale, Assad adopted a more general formula according to which negotiations may resume "on the basis of what was accomplished in the past."[7] It should be emphasized that Syria did not change its substantive position that Israeli withdrawal must be to the June 4, 1967 borders, but was ready now to accept the general formula as "a starting point [with additional] verbal clarifications by President Clinton."[8]

Both in his speech at the inauguration of his government on July 6, and during his visit to the US (July 14-20), Barak continued to advocate his peace initiative. He reiterated his call for "the leaders of the region" to forge the "Peace of the Brave."[9] Barak presented President Clinton with a plan for a final peace settlement by October 2000, including a settlement with Syria.[10] Clinton reaffirmed the general optimism by calling on President Assad to take advantage of the golden opportunity to forge peace.[11]

Barak's plan was vague about Israel's withdrawal. It said that Israel would withdraw from the Golan. But, it also stated that the border would be moved away from the shore of the Sea of Galilee and a solution would be "found" for the Al-Hama[12] problem. The Syrians, however, put their trust in President Clinton and took a seemingly dramatic step. Deputy Syrian President Abd Al-Halim Khaddam convened the leaders of Hizbullah and the Palestinian organizations that reject Oslo and instructed them "to prepare to cease the armed struggle against Israel."[13] Damascus Radio reported that "negotiations are expected to resume within a few weeks" and that "reaching an agreement is not impossible."[14]

The Borderline Impasse

Less than 24 hours later, the hope for a speedy resumption of the negotiations was shattered and the Syrian media began a fierce campaign against Barak "who is no better than his predecessor" and who "returned to the policy of dodging and foot-dragging."[15]

The reason for the crisis was that neither Israel nor the US accepted the Syrian interpretation in the border dispute. On July 22, Barak advisor Dani Yatom stated that although Israel does not oppose resuming negotiations from "the point [where] they stopped," it does not mean the July 4, 1967 borders, as Syria demands. Rather, Israel sees the "point where the negotiations stopped" as interpretable.[16] In addition, the Americans did not send any clarification. Clinton was going to call President Assad, after Barak's visit to Washington, but he did not receive Barak's consent for the Syrian demand,[17] so he chose to send a letter, which did not include the commitment for which Syria had hoped.

The Syrian leadership saw these developments as a trap set by Barak and stated that this was a "a return to square one."[18]

The American Position

The American position regarding the "point where negotiations stopped" is vague. There seem to be three different American positions on the issue.

First, there is the 'Christopher Letter,' given by former Secretary of State, Christopher, to former Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, in which he states that "as Secretary of State, I did not see the Non-Paper [delivered by Rabin]…[19] as legally binding."[20] In an interview with Ha'aretz, a year later, Christopher confirmed the content of the letter saying: "I believe that as far as international law is concerned, Israel is standing on very solid ground - nothing is settled until you have a signed agreement... anything Israel offered was conditional."[21]

Second, there is the "Ross Memo" that was written after Madeleine Albright replaced Christopher. According to media report, the US State Department Peace Process Coordinator Dennis Ross did not see a commitment to an Israeli withdrawal in Rabin's non-paper, but he did consider the non-paper binding as "a basis for discussion."

A third position was implied by the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Martin Indyk, who said, in an interview with an Arab radio station, "there are several versions regarding what happened in the past. There is an Israeli version, and there is a Syrian version. The US participated in the negotiations and we have documentation of all that happened in it."[22]

Although Indyk's position remained vague, it was interpreted as different from Ross's version and as favoring Syria's position on the issue. The Syrian media praised Indyk's position. "Did not Martin Indyk say, for the first time," stated the editorial of the Syrian Al-Thawra daily, "that the withdrawal to the June 4 lines is a deposit with the American Administration?"[23] Indyk was appointed in mid-June to mediate the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, after "reaching an understanding with the Syrian leadership."[24] Diplomatic sources quoted by the London-based Al-Hayat hinted that there is tension between Indyk and Ross.[25] It is possible that this tension is reflected in their different positions about "the point where the negotiations stopped."

Israel-Syrian Negotiations Part II: Syrian and Israeli Strategies


*Yigal Carmon is the President of MEMRI. Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] Ha'aretz (Israel), June 18, 1999

[2] Ha'aretz (Israel), June 21, 1999

[3] Seale in an interview with Yediot Ahronot (Israel), June 18, 1999; also Al-Hayat (London, June 23, 1999.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), June 23, 1999

[5] Ha'aretz (Israel), June 24, 1999; Seale was impressed by Sagui's stand against his old "brothers in arms," who live in the Golan and criticized Sagui's readiness to negotiate with Syria about withdrawal from the Golan.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), July 23, 1999; Syrian enthusiasm for Barak was so great that after the Israeli attack on a Beirut power plant in end of June, Syria was quick to clarify that it viewed the incident as an attempt by Netanyahu to embarrass Barak [Damascus Radio commentator, June 26, 1999], disregarding Ha'aretz columnist Ze'ev Schiff's conviction that Barak knew about the coming bombardment and did not prevent it - Ha'aretz (Israel), June 27, 1999.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), June 23, 1999

[8] Ha'aretz (Israel), June 28, 1999

[9] Ha'aretz (Israel), July 7, 1999

[10] Ha'aretz (Israel), July 19, 1999

[11] Ha'aretz (Israel), July 20, 1999

[12] Ha'aretz (Israel), July 19, 1999

[13] Ha'aretz (Israel), July 20, 1999

[14] Al-Hayat (London), July 23, 1999 these positive statements on the Syrian front were, at that time, in sharp contrast to the tensions between Israel and the Egyptians and Palestinians. This tension peaked with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amru Musa, personally accusing Barak of shattering the trust between Israel and the Arabs.

[15] Al-Ba'ath (Syria), July 29, 1999, according to Ma'ariv (Israel), July 30, 1999

[16] Israeli TV, Channel 2, July 22, 1999

[17] According to Ha'aretz (Israel), July 29, 1999 Barak asked Clinton to postpone the formulation of his position until he finished organizing his government and until Secretary Albright's visit to the region.

[18] Damascus Radio, according to Al-Hayat (London), July 29, 1999

[19] Rabin's proposal that was transferred to Assad through Secretary Christopher. It included an Israeli consent to a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 border, on the condition that Israeli terms on security and normalization would be met.

[20] Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, The Threshold of Peace, Israel and Syria 1992-1996 [in Hebrew], Yediot Ahronot press, 1998, pp. 24-5.

[21] Ha'aretz (Israel), October 24, 1997

[22] Al-Quds (London), July 29, 1999

[23] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 31, 1999

[24] Al-Hayat (London), June 20, 1999

[25] Al-Hayat (London), June 20, 1999