JERUSALEM (Feb. 29)
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has placed his latest bet in the strange and frustrating poker game between Israel and Syria.
Now it is up to the Syrians to either see the bet and resume the stalled peace negotiations — or fold and walk away from the game, perhaps for many years to come.
Israeli officials say the fateful decision must come from Damascus within weeks, or else, with the Clinton administration’s term moving toward its end, the window of opportunity will close.
Barak’s move, coordinated in advance with Washington, was to state for the first time that Israel is prepared to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights to the border that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.
The offer is still somewhat ambiguous because, in Israel’s view, that border is yet to be precisely demarcated.
Moreover, Barak still insists that he will not hand over any of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to Syria.
Just the same, a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line means a total pullback from the towering Golan to the Galilee valley below. The geographical advantage secured by the Israeli army during the Six-Day War would be completely surrendered.
Barak, in a lengthy and carefully prepared policy review, claimed during a marathon Cabinet session Sunday that his four predecessors had all, in effect, secretly offered Syrian President Hafez Assad this same total withdrawal.
The difference was that now Barak was doing so formally and, in effect, publicly. Though he made the statement behind closed doors, his words were soon relayed to the media.
Damascus viewed his comments as the first confirmation of a long-held Syrian contention that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had told then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher he was willing to cede the Golan to Damascus in return for a full peace.
Formal negotiations between Israel and Syria resumed last December after being suspended for close to four years. The talks were again suspended in January, when Syria demanded that Israel state in writing that it is willing to withdraw from the Golan.
With the help of U.S. diplomats, there have been subsequent informal contacts. Washington is said to be pressing for agreement on the most substantive issues before a formal resumption of the negotiations in order to ensure that the process does not run aground again.
If this can be achieved, the two sides could sign a peace treaty this spring. Israeli officials maintain that this is a real possibility.
Barak’s position now is:
A phased Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to the prewar line;
Extensive demilitarization and limitation of forces on the Syrian side of the line;
Other security arrangements, including an Israeli presence for a period of years at the Mount Hermon surveillance station, which would be operated by the United States;
Diplomatic relations at an early stage of the withdrawal process;
Other elements of normalization, including trade and tourism; and,
Agreement among Israel, Syria and Lebanon that would end the fighting in southern Lebanon and enable Israeli troops to return home by the summer.
For his part, Assad, is demanding an Israeli withdrawal before normalizing relations. He is also sticking to his demand that Israel provide a written commitment to withdraw from the Golan before the formal resumption of the negotiations.
Assad, moreover, denies that he ever agreed to a continued Israeli presence at the Hermon station, and that both sides demilitarize and limit their forces at equal distances from the border.
Israeli officials say that if these positions do not change there will be no deal.
Barak’s dramatic raising of the stakes across the poker table this week, while welcomed in Washington, drew much stinging criticism inside Israel, and not only from the opposition.
Israel’s largest newspapers faulted the prime minister for trying to draw his predecessors into his negotiating gambit.
Yediot Achronot wrote in its editorial column Tuesday that this tactic betrays a lack of courage that hardly accorded with the image Barak cultivates of himself as a straight-talking, head-held-high national leader.
A leading Ma’ariv columnist wrote Monday that Barak had shot himself in the foot by attempting to use the hawkish former Likud premier Yitzhak Shamir.
Barak maintained during Sunday’s Cabinet session that Shamir had implicitly agreed to a total Golan withdrawal back in 1991, when he consented to attend the Madrid Peace Conference on the basis of an invitation that referred to the U.N. Security Council’s land-for-peace Resolution 242.
Rabin, said Barak, told Christopher that Israel was ready in principle to pull back to the June 4 line if all the other elements of the peace package fell into place.
Shimon Peres, Barak went on, endorsed Rabin’s position.
And Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak’s immediate predecessor, conveyed to the Syrians his willingness to withdraw to the prewar line in a secret dialogue conducted by U.S. businessman Ronald Lauder, who now serves as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Shamir and Netanyahu flatly denied Barak’s version of history.
"I was always against any withdrawal on any front," the still-feisty Shamir declared.
Netanyahu, reacting from New York, said his secret negotiations failed precisely because he was not prepared to commit to total withdrawal.
Leah Rabin, speaking for her slain husband, was equivocal, and Shimon Peres said he "focused on economic issues rather than on the border line."
Writing in Ma’ariv, columnist Chemi Shalev accused Barak of being "typically overreaching himself with his too-clever-by-half interpretation of the Madrid conference."
The whole country knew, Shalev wrote, that Shamir refused to make territorial concessions and did not intend to make them, explicitly or implicitly, at Madrid.
The political wisdom of Barak’s historiography would be merely academic were it not for his need to win the Israeli public’s support in the referendum that he has promised to hold when and if a peace treaty is concluded with Syria.
At present, according to the polls, that support is by no means assured.
Superfluous sparring with Likud predecessors over now-irrelevant history, instead of strengthening him, may boomerang against Barak in the battle for public opinion.