Handshakes and cordiality were the order of the day as Israeli and Syrian military officials sat down in Washington this week to discuss security arrangements for the Golan Heights as part of a potential peace deal between the two countries.
But while cordiality apparently characterized the meeting in Washington, a political firestorm erupted in Jerusalem.
The firestorm was sparked when Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu purportedly disclosed a document of instructions given by the government to Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, in preparation for his Washington with his Syrian counterpart, Lt. gen. Hikmat Shihabi.
During their first day of talks Tuesday, the two military men agreed on three principles: the need for demilitarized zones, for limitation-of-forces zones and for early warning measures, according to reporters, who were kept at arm’s length from the principal negotiators meeting at Fort McNair in Washington.
Beyond that, according to reporters, wide gaps remain.
This week’s talks in Washington were the first substantive talks between Israel and Syria since last December, when Syria demanded symmetry in any security arrangements. Syria has demanded full withdrawal from the Golan, while Israel has based any pullback on the nature of security arrangements and the extent of peace.
But officials in Jerusalem are apparently encouraged by the atmosphere as well as by the rare positive comments that seem to have crept into the official – - and closely monitored — Syrian media.
Tishrin, the official Syria newspaper, said Wednesday that the Washington round “could be a breakthrough.”
Although the paper dutifully reiterated Syria’s demand for total withdrawal from the Golan, it seemed to take pains to assure Israelis that there was “no danger” for Israel in withdrawing from the strategic plateau, because Syria was well-known to honor the accords it concludes.
The question, in the Syrian paper’s view, was: Did Israel have the courage and foresight to conclude peace and security accords with Syria?
The chiefs of staff were scheduled to wind up their session Thursday, probably with a meeting with President Clinton.
In addition to Shahak, the Israeli delegation includes Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, and the prime minister’s military secretary, Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom.
Talks are scheduled to continue in mid-July between the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors, along with lower-ranking officers.
Back in Jerusalem, stormy scenes erupted in the Knesset when Likud leader Netanyahu brandished a paper that he asserted was a document containing instructions to Shahak. He said the document represented a government retreat from its earlier security conditions.
Netanyahu refused to disclose the source of the document or to say who had signed it. He said it was written on June 19.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, replying to opposition motions of no confidence, said Netanyahu was bluffing.
Rabin, in curt comments to reporters, said “Gentlemen, you remember `the torrid tape?’ Well, this is another torrid tape.”
The premier’s reference was to Netanyahu’s dramatic televised allegation in early 1993 that aides to his Likud rival, David Levy, were blackmailing him over an extramarital affair he had.
Netanyahu accused the blackmailers of threatening to disclose an illegally obtained tape recording. But the entire story proved false and baseless — to the Likud leader’s grave embarrassment.
The Knesset vote was defeated by a comfortable 54 to 48 margin in favor of the government.
Behind the scenes in the Knesset, however, things looked less bright for the prime minister and his peace policies.
A group of 13 Labor Knesset members, among them four ministers, gathered discreetly to create a new hawkish group within the party. They were determined “to stop the slide towards Meretz,” they said, referring to the left-wing party that is part of the government coalition.
The group put forward three demands: that the government hold firm for a defensible border line on the Golan; that it hold firm for full normalization with Syria; and that it hold firm for Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem.
Included in the new group are several Cabinet ministers: Shimon Shetreet, minister of economics; Michael Harish, minister of commerce and industry; Ephraim Sneh, minister of health; and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, minister of construction and housing.