Syria reportedly began shuffling its ambassadors and assembling a negotiating team for peace talks with Israel even as Israeli and Palestinian officials met for the first time Monday to develop a framework for a peace treaty a year from now.
“We have the impression … that Syria considers more than ever before that peace serves its strategic assets,” Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel army radio. “In the last month there have been more signs that Syria wants to return to the negotiating table.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah told a Lebanese newspaper Monday that he expected Israeli-Syrian talks to resume within a month. He did not say what he based that prediction on, but his comment came after a series of reported overtures by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Syrian President Hafez Assad to restart talks.
Despite those efforts, Assad has refused to budge from his insistence that talks hinge on Barak agreeing in advance to withdraw from the Golan Heights, according to Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and the lead negotiator with Syria before talks broke off in 1996.
“There is a consensus among those who deal with this issue that were the negotiations to resume, they would likely be successful,” he said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv University, where he is now president. “But there is a huge difference about that resumption.”
Rabinovich said Assad’s insistence that Israel agree to withdraw to the borders of June 4, 1967 — the date Israel captured the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War — is “not acceptable to Barak, or for that matter the United States. No Israeli prime minister can enter into negotiations on that basis. What we are seeing are pressure tactics by Syria to force Israel to the negotiating table.”
But Assad maintains that former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin agreed to such a withdrawal in 1995 — an offer Assad refused at the time.
“I think he may have realized that he missed a chance [to get back the Golan Heights] in 1995,” said Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Policy and former American ambassador to Syria. “It may have taken Rabin’s assassination [in November 1995] to persuade him that there are substantial differences between Israeli leaders. For years the view in Syria was that there was nothing to chose between, that they were all expansionist and not interested in land for peace.”
But the cool attitude of Barak’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, towards Syria — no peace talks were held with Syria while he was in office — apparently changed Assad’s mind.
“There is some wishful thinking in the air,” said Murphy. “There is sentimentalizing that Assad because of his age — he is said to be 68 or 69 and his critics say 73 — he may be softer and more forthcoming. I don’t buy that.”
But clearly both Assad and Barak have made overtures to each other. Shortly after Barak’s election in May, Assad told his biographer, Patrick Seale, that Barak “seems to be a strong and honest man. … It is clear that he wants to achieve peace with Syria. He is moving forward at a well-studied plan. [He] is a leader who, I feel sure, can accomplish whatever he decides to do.”
Barak reciprocated with similar praise for Assad, which he reiterated in an interview last Friday in an interview with the London-based Jewish Chronicle. Barak called Assad a “man of his word … of honor, of dignity.” He said that peace with Syria would only strengthen Israel and that he would do everything in his power to achieve it.
“It’s against my judgment of common sense that they will not find a formula to resume negotiations with me,” Barak said.
Talks broke off in 1996 following a series of suicide bombings in Israel by Arab terrorists and the accidental Israeli shelling of a United Nations compound in Lebanon that killed civilians.
Rabinovich said Barak has made several overtures to Assad in which he has suggested different ways to restart the talks.
One overture was apparently carried by Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen, who told an Arab newspaper last weekend that when he met with Assad last month he carried a message from Barak saying Barak was ready to renew talks where they broke off. And a Syrian newspaper reported that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright earlier this month relayed another message from Barak in which he promised to honor a commitment of former Rabin to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967.
Rabinovich said there was some substance to those reports but that they were not totally correct because there was never a commitment by Rabin to withdraw “from” the Golan Heights. All Rabin said was that he was prepared to withdraw Israeli troops stationed “on” the Golan Heights. Similarly, although Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, Barak has pledged to withdraw troops on that strategic plateau but had not spelled out the depth of that withdrawal.
Murphy pointed out that Assad not only wants to recover the territory lost in the Six-Day War but also three miles of land that was once part of the British-mandated Palestine. That would advance the Syrian border to about 100 yards from the Sea of Galilee and its precious water supply, from which Israel draws the majority of its water.
Both Israel and Syria are looking to the U.S. to bring the sides to the negotiating table. Albright is expected to meet with leaders from both countries when she attends the UN General Assembly later this month. And there is speculation that she might try “telephone diplomacy” if she fails during her UN meetings.
Murphy said President Bill Clinton might have to take a personal role. American officials were quoted last week as saying that Clinton was prepared to do just that in the hope of fashioning a comprehensive peace in the Middle East before he leaves office.
Such a peace would also mean that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would be able to resolve their own crucial issues, including: the right of 3 million Palestinian refugees to return to their family homes, the boundaries of both Israel and a future Palestinian state, water rights, the future of the 200,000 Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the future status of Jerusalem.
Last week, Israel began implementing the newly revised Wye River agreement. It turned over 7 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian administration and it released 199 Palestinian prisoners.