As Israeli and Syrian top military commanders wound up three days of talks in Washington, Israel’s government and opposition continued to trade verbal blows back home over a leaked document regarding the talks.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had earlier denied the existence of the document, which was disclosed by Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, later termed it “a stolen document.”
A political firestorm erupted in the Knesset on Wednesday, when Netanyahu said the document represented Rabin’s instructions to Chief Of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak for his talks with his Syrian counterpart in Washington.
Rabin called Netanyahu’s claim a lie, insisting that he himself had never seen the document, which, he said, was an internal working paper of the Israel Defense Force.
Netanyahu hit back, calling Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres “liars” for trying to deny the validity of the document.
Media reports attributed the document to Brig. Gen. Zvi Stauber, a member of Shahak’s team in Washington.
The document appeared to back away from Israel’s demand to maintain an early warning station on the Golan and from its demand that security and demilitarization arrangements not be equal on both sides of the new border.
The document appears to presume a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement with Syria.
Rabin and other officials denied that any of these inferences represented Israel’s actual negotiating position in the talks Shahak conducted with Syria’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Hikmat Shihabi. The talks themselves wound up on a fairly somber — though not discordant — note.
The talks, which concluded with a meeting with President Clinton on Thursday, were the first substantive talks between Israel and Syria since December.
Shahak told reporters after his meeting with Clinton and Shihabi on Thursday that there was “no understanding” on any of the central issues.
“But there is understanding on the need for more discussions and for each side to further explain its positions and concepts to the other,” he said.
Terming the talks “extraordinary” and “unprecedented,” U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the discussions focused on three main topics: early warning systems, confidence-building measures and zones of separation.
Israeli officials said the two sides had agreed in principle on the need for all three elements, but no specific had been decided.
Reports from Washington said Shihabi had rejected Shahak’s suggestion for immediate confidence-building measures, such as a hot line between the two army commands and prior notice of military exercises.
The Syrian position is that such advances can come only in the context of an overall agreement.
Israeli sources said the atmosphere was businesslike and cordial throughout the three days of meetings, and that the two sides had exchanged some corridor conversation.
There were no posed handshakes for the official U.S. cameras, and the Syrians refused to admit Israeli camera crews.
Shihabi told Clinton the talks had been “very serious.”
Christopher announced that his Mideast aide, Dennis Ross, would head a shuttle mission to the region next week, with further military and diplomatic talks tentatively set for Washington later in July.
The secretary said the question of an “international presence” was likely to come up at a later stage. The question of U.S. troops participating in an observer force on the Golan Heights in the event of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord has been a source of great controversy in Washington.