Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University and former director of the Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Tel Aviv, is a recognized expert on Syria and Lebanon. Maoz, 64, and the father of two, lives with his wife in Jerusalem. He was interviewed while visiting New York as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright prepared for her visit this week to Damascus.
Jewish Week: Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said since he took office in July that he wants to resume peace talks with Syria, but there does not appear to be any movement. What have you heard?
Maoz: I think there is something going on — particularly by the Americans — to try to find a formula to restart the negotiations. If the formula is found, it means there will be a deal because 60 to 80 percent of the issues have already been agreed on.
The French have also sought to play a role in restarting the talks.
But they don’t have any influence; what can the French offer? Both sides will listen to the Americans. America can offer the removal of Syria from its list of terrorist nations. That list stops international investments, which are crucially important.
Syria wants as a precondition to the talks Israel’s commitment to return the Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in the Six-Day War in June 1967.
I think the government of Israel and maybe Barak are ready to [give back the Golan] up to the 1923 international boundary, which does not touch Lake Tiberias. The Syrians want a return to the border of June 4, 1967, which means to the water and other areas that belong to Israel under the international boundary. It’s chutzpah [that Syria is demanding the 1967 borders] and it should not get it, but it is a bargaining position.
How do you assess Syrian President Hafez Assad and Barak as negotiators?
Assad and Barak are tough, cold, military people and they do not bend under pressure. They believe in tough negotiations and they have an interest to come to terms; I am optimistic it will work. They do not love one another; there is no love in the Middle East [despite the] effusive comments they made about each other [earlier this year]. It was surprising hearing such comments from Assad because he is a cold fish.
Barak has promised to withdraw Israeli troops from the self-imposed security belt in southern Lebanon by next July, with or without a peace agreement with Syria.
This is a brilliant move of Barak’s because for many years Syria said that for Israel to leave southern Lebanon and have peace along that border, the address for negotiation was Damascus. And it said the price for negotiation was the Golan Heights. Now comes Barak and he says that if there is no agreement with Syria and Lebanon by July 2000, I will pull out and you will have no cards left.
There are some Israeli analysts who believe that a unilateral withdrawal would simply shift Hezbollah attacks from the security zone to Israel’s northern communities.
The motivation of Hezbollah to fight would be reduced [once Israel withdraws] because it is a Lebanese nationalistic organization. Of course they talk of [wanting] Jerusalem, but they want to liberate South Lebanon, which is more realistic. Once this is done, they won’t have a motivation to fight. That is Barak’s calculation and one I fully agree with. It is … risky, but you can’t take steps without taking calculated risks, and Israel is strong enough to take this kind of risk.
Assad might move his forces in Lebanon to the international boundary, and that could be very dangerous because [attacks from there] would inflict civilian casualties. Israel would retaliate, but it can’t stop terrorist activities and Katyusha rockets. Should Israel then invade Lebanon? We’ve been in that movie; we would be back to square one. But this is the worst-case scenario and it is another incentive for all sides to come to terms before July 2000.
There are reports that Assad at the age of 69 is gravely ill. Do you believe them?
He is sick. We don’t know what he has. He had a heart attack in ’83. Also there are reports he has leukemia and diabetes. Sources I have say he cannot function for more than three hours a day. What does this mean politically, that he is not able to make decisions, that we have to wait for his son to replace him?
I believe he is capable of making decisions. He would like to [negotiate a peace treaty] before he goes away because he wants to go down in history as retrieving the Golan Heights that he lost twice, once as minister of war in 1967 and again in 1973, when as president his troops recaptured it and then lost it again in the [same] war. My guess is he wants to leave a clean table to his son Bashir because his son might be too weak and inexperienced [to negotiate a treaty]. It is in Israel’s interests to make a deal with Assad because he can deliver.
What advice would you give Barak to get the talks going?
I would go out with a statement saying we are willing to give Syria back the entire Golan Heights — to the international boundaries — as we did with Egypt and Jordan in return for full diplomatic relations, economic cooperation and full normalization of relations. That would be a very convincing position, and Assad could take it or leave it.
Israel has for years argued the need to hold onto the Golan Heights for security reasons. How would it continue to ensure against a Syrian attack from the Golan?
The Golan Heights would be demilitarized and supervised with a multinational force similar to the one in the Sinai, as well as early warning stations like those in the Sinai. There was an understanding during negotiations in 1994-95 that the Golan would be demilitarized. Not agreed upon was the supervision. Israel wanted early warning ground stations on Mount Hermon staffed by Israeli soldiers. Syria said no, only aerial supervision with American equipment and personnel. That has proved to be a stumbling block and is yet to be resolved. And although there would be diplomatic relations, there’s a debate about normalization and cultural, economic and trade relations.