Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
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2000: the year of a settlement?

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The most crucial round of negotiations between Syria and Israel were inaugurated at the White House yesterday. After a four-year hiatus, the Israeli-Syrian peace talks resumed at a higher level than they have ever been conducted before, with Prime Minister Ehud Barak leading the Israeli team and Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa the Syrian. Although president Assad's poor health prevented him from attending, no one doubted that he was the engineer of what Washington called a "significant breakthrough". The Syrian president surprised Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she met him in Damascus on 7 December by indicating his readiness to resume the stalled talks with the Israelis in a manner she described as 'constructive'.

The resumption of the talks comes shortly after the publication in Al-Hayat of a series of articles (on 21, 22 and 23 November) by British author and journalist Patrick Seale. Entitled "Rabin's Legacy", the articles dealt with events that had taken place four years earlier, and there seemed to be no apparent reason for bringing them up at this juncture. The mystery was rendered more intriguing still by Seale's known closeness to the Syrian leadership, without whose help and consent the critical issues raised in his articles could not have come to be known, let alone published.

According to Seale, on 3 August 1993 the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave a pledge to then-US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that Israel would withdraw from the whole of the Golan, a pledge that was confirmed by Clinton in a message he sent to Assad in June 1995. In the message, which was delivered by special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross, Clinton assured Assad that, as he had previously informed the Syrian president and his foreign minister, he had in his pocket a commitment from Rabin that Israel was ready to withdraw to the 4 June 1967 borders, but cautioned against talking about this commitment openly so as not to expose Rabin to pressure from Israeli hard-liners before he was ready to deal with them.

It is clear from recent developments that the timing of Patrick Seale's articles was anything but random. By revealing just days before the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks that Clinton was privy to Rabin's pledge to restore the Golan in its entirety to Syria, the articles were clearly designed to serve the Syrian negotiating position.

Actually, Rabin's intention to give up the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria was no secret. In an interview to the Kuwaiti Al-Rai Al-Am newspaper on 26 December 1997, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres confirmed that "Rabin had expressed his readiness to withdraw totally from the Golan and was on the verge of making peace with Syria". Peres made this statement to expose Netanyahu's double standards in requiring the Arab parties to honour their peace commitments at the same time that he was refusing to honour Israel's.

It was Clinton who declared after Albright's meeting with Assad that the negotiations would be resumed from the point at which they broke down four years ago, a somewhat ambiguous statement given that the Israeli side still insists there should be no preconditions. One Israeli commentator called the ambiguity a 'creative' one, but no one can ensure that this optimistic reading will not come up against a stumbling block at the very start of the negotiations.

Assad is trying to use Clinton's rush to finalise a settlement before he leaves office in January 2001 to maximise Syria's gains. True, Assad himself is under pressure, not only because of his health problems, but because Barak's threat of a unilateral pullback from southern Lebanon before next July can complicate Syria's relations with Lebanon. There is also the fact that Assad is keen to wrap up a deal himself in order to leave a clean slate for his successor, widely expected to be his son, Bashar.

Barak responded to Assad's surprise decision to resume negotiations with a proposal that the two parties sign a joint Declaration of Principles ending the state of war between them, as well as the state of war between Israel and Lebanon. Informed Israeli sources believe Barak will not put his proposed Declaration to a referendum on the grounds that it is simply a confidence-building measure and a test of Syrian intentions. When and if Syria passes the test, the terms of peace will be put to a referendum, by which time Barak hopes Israeli public opinion will back his decision.

Of course, the Declaration of Principles will not resolve the many issues still outstanding between the parties, such as what degree of control Israel will retain over the water it gets from the Golan Heights, will its security concerns be satisfied, will this require the stationing of international troops between the protagonists, can Israel establish an early warning system without access to the land restored to Syria, etc.

Since the Middle East peace process was launched in Madrid, Syria's participation has been marginal at best -- its involvement in the process limited to talks at a low-grade technical level, on the grounds that it would not engage in direct contacts at the decision-making level as long as Israel did not commit itself to a complete withdrawal from the Golan. The Washington meeting between Barak and Sharaa marks a clear departure from this line. Syria has engaged in direct contacts at the highest level with Israel without obtaining any such commitment. This has divided the future negotiating process into two stages: a preliminary stage where principles are to be established, and a second stage where these principles will be implemented. Negotiations in the first stage are expected to take place in Washington and to continue up to the end of the year. No decision has yet been taken concerning the venue for the second stage. It is likely to be some place in the Middle East. Both Jordan and Egypt have already offered to host the negotiations.

Barak initially believed he could use Clinton's keenness to have a deal wrapped up before his departure from the White House to impose Israel's terms for a solution of the problems to which it holds the key: Jerusalem, the settlements, borders, water, security, etc. The problem is that Assad is playing the same game from his vantage point, and is certain to make the continuation of the talks conditional on Israel's withdrawal from the whole of the Golan.

To prevent a total impasse, Barak could well decide to grant Assad's demand for a complete withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for Syria's acceptance of all his conditions, and use the favourable mood thus engendered to ensure a smooth retreat from southern Lebanon without too much friction with Hizbullah. Barak can also arrange for his planned referendum to deal with both the Syrian and Lebanese fronts simultaneously: with the withdrawal from the Golan, which is strongly opposed by the Golan settlers and their supporters, and with the withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which is strongly supported by the vast majority of Israelis. As the number of those who favour disengagement in Lebanon is much greater than those who oppose withdrawal from the Golan, a referendum along those lines would effectively neutralise Barak's opponents.

Should Barak opt for this scenario, he will not only succeed in silencing his opponents but will enable Clinton to announce that peace has been reached on both the Syrian and Palestinian fronts, even if the Palestinians will not have restored most of the West Bank, the settlements will not have been dismantled and the critical issues of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, final borders and water, will not have been resolved. An announcement of peace despite the failure to resolve these issues would be based on the underlying assumption that massive injections of capital into the region could eliminate the pockets of resistance, dissolve all opposition and frustration and pave the way to peace.

But the question is whether a conflict that has held the forefront in the Middle East throughout most of the twentieth century can be resolved in this way. Can what has come to be termed a 'culture of peace' eliminate all historical memory throughout the region? Can the Arabs claim victory and the achievement of peace while their ranks remain so divided that a handshake between Assad and Barak is more likely to happen than a handshake between Assad and Arafat?!

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