Israel-Syria talks: Does the past matter?

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (JTA) — When President Clinton announced the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria this month, he said the talks would be conducted “on the basis of all previous negotiations” and would be “resumed from the point where they left off.”

The ambiguity of the president’s statements clearly seemed designed to allow both Israel and Syria — whose leaders have argued for nearly four years exactly where that point is — to come back to the negotiating table with their own views intact and without appearing to have given in to the other side.

But the question remains: How will their differences over where the talks left off — not to mention what occurred during secret negotiations held during the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — impact the current negotiations and the likelihood of reaching a comprehensive deal?

Those talks came to a halt in the spring of 1996 after a wave of terrorist bombings against Israel. Syria maintains that the talks left off with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin making a commitment to return the entire Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

Israel, however, maintains that the offer was hypothetical to see if Syrian President Hafez Assad was willing to meet Israeli demands on security and normalization. Israeli officials involved in those talks have said Assad did not meet Israel’s requirements and therefore there was no deal.

Heading into last week’s two days of talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said during a speech to the Knesset that peace with Syria would carry a “heavy territorial price” although he did not spell out exactly what that would mean.

The extent of the withdrawal “will be determined in negotiations, based on the depth of peace and quality of security arrangements,” Barak said, as opposition legislators heckled him from the floor.

Sharaa, during his combative speech during last week’s Rose Garden ceremony to kick off the talks, said, “It goes without saying that peace for Syria means the return of all its occupied land.” But he did not mention Syria’s demand — and up until now a precondition to the resumption of talks — that Israel agree to withdraw to the borders of June 4, 1967, which marks the line that separated the Israeli and Syrian armies in the Jordan Valley before the Six-Day War began.

Israel has long maintained that it would not return to that line, saying it would allow Syria to sit on the Sea of Galilee, which is a major water source for Israel. But during previous negotiations with Syria, Israeli officials apparently discussed withdrawing to the 1923 international boundary that separated Syria and Palestine. The 1923 border sits just east of the 1967 line.

“These 11 square miles are important to both sides,” said Frederic Hof, a former official at the Defense and State Departments who specialized in Middle East affairs.

Hof, who recently wrote an analysis of the history of the June 4 line that was published by the Washington-based Middle East Insight magazine, said Syria wants Israel to withdraw to that line because it would mean a complete withdrawal from all the land captured in 1967 — just as Israel withdrew from all Egyptian territory under the 1979 Camp David Accords. For internal political reasons, he said, Syria wants as good a deal as Egypt got.

For Israel, Hof said, the critical issue is water. By withdrawing to the 1923 international boundary, Israel will keep Syria 33 feet away from the Sea of Galilee instead of allowing Syria to sit directly on the shores of the lake, known as the Kinneret.

He said these two factors “form the bracket between which negotiators may eventually seek to demarcate a boundary of peace,” he said. “There is nothing about the line of June 4, 1967, per se that would obstruct a final settlement.”

Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said the differences over what each side will accept in terms of the border is “the biggest question mark” hanging over the talks.

“One way or another, each side is going to have to be able to defend this deal, and their public comments about what they are either requiring or what they are not prepared to do, to some extent, complicates it,” said Haass, who handled Middle East policy at the National Security Council for President Bush.

Within Israel, the extent of a withdrawal is at the center of the debate on the talks with Syria, which are slated to resume in the Washington area on Jan. 3.

Speaking during a Knesset debate on the resumption of peace talks with Damascus, Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon declared last week that Netanyahu had offered territorial compromise in exchange for a peace accord with Syria.

He revealed what he said was a draft agreement Netanyahu sent to Assad in August 1998 via his intermediary, Ronald Lauder, the New York cosmetics heir and current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

According to Ramon, the draft agreement stated, among other things, that Israel would withdraw from lands captured from Syria in 1967, in accordance with U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, in three phases, and that normalization of ties would be completed with the conclusion of the final phase.

Netanyahu, who acknowledged the secret contacts in July, has maintained that no deal was reached because he refused to accept Syrian terms for a full withdrawal from the Golan, saying that he told Assad that he saw the border beginning “miles” east of the 1967 line.

Barak reportedly told ministers at least week’s Cabinet meeting that when he took office he spoke at length with Netanyahu and Lauder about the contacts with Syria, which was represented by George Nader, a Lebanese-American who publishes Middle East Insight, a glossy magazine for Middle East policy wonks.

Both Lauder and Nader have refused to talk about the secret negotiations and did not respond to inquiries made by JTA.

Barak was quoted in the Israeli media as saying that if details of what Netanyahu was prepared to offer to Syria became public, one would need a microscope to determine the differences between the former Likud leader’s positions and those of his Labor predecessors, Rabin and Shimon Peres.

But Daniel Pipes, the editor of the Middle East Quarterly who wrote a piece detailing the secret talks for the New Republic in July, differs with Barak’s assessment.

Pipes has concluded through his discussions with people involved in the talks that Netanyahu did agree to withdraw to the 1967 border, thus putting Barak in a weaker position during the current negotiations with Syria. Pipes asserts that Rabin and Peres had only gone as far as signaling they would withdraw to the 1923 border.

However, Pipes said one of the indications that Assad is not ready for a deal is that Syria has not raised details of the negotiations with Netanyahu — at least not publicly.

Whatever was or wasn’t agreed to during the secret contacts, those negotiations — as much as previous direct talks — have paved the way for the current talks. In discussing last week’s meetings in Washington, Barak, on Israel Television, cited past negotiations, saying, “We are not going to erase the past, with all that entails.”

Some observers believe the talks between Netanyahu’s Likud-led government and Syria will make it easier for Barak to strike a deal with Damascus.

“The fact that so much progress was made between Israel and Syria, even under a previous Likud government, in some ways protects this Labor government from attacks from the domestic political right in Israel,” Haass said.

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