How Barak Failed The Peace with Syria


Between December 1999 and March 2000, a great hope for peace with Syria turned into a big disappointment. While the Israeli and most foreign media worked hard to portray Assad as the rejectionist, it didn’t fully conceal the fact that Barak never agreed to withdraw from the Golan heights.

In December 1999, Clinton announced the renewal of the peace talks between Israel and Syria. The feeling in Israel was of a great historic moment. The dominant message which was conveyed by the Israeli media was optimistic: what was seen a great hope was peace with Syria and quiet in the north. Peace like with Egypt: Israelis can vacation in Nueiba and Dahab – They just need to do it as is customary between two countries, with a visa and a border crossing in Eilat. The popular media published articles about tourist attractions in Damascus.

The polls indicated that most of the Israeli public agrees to a withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace. Even three months later, when the language of imminent peace has changed into one of a “disappointment” with Syria, and the newspaper headlines announced that “the support for withdrawal is decreasing”, the public continued to support: in a comprehensive poll which was conducted by the Tel Aviv university’s Yafeh institute for strategic research, 60% of Israelis Jews supported a withdrawal from ALL of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria. The conductor of the poll, Prof Asher Arian, explained that this poll is more reliable than similar polls because it was spanned over a month, and not over a week, as is usually done, people were interviewed in their homes and not over the phone, and the number of participants was large: 1201 compared to the customary number of around 500.

How is it that despite the support of most of the Israelis, no agreement was realized?

This isn’t, of course, the first time that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations appeared to have entered a high gear. The previous round, which began in 1994, seemed no less promising. On 11.4.94, the main headline of Haaretz (one of many) announced: “working assumption -a full withdrawal from the Golan”. The negotiations lasted nearly two years. Then, too, Israel was flooded with “we are with the Golan” demonstrations, but in the negotiations, nothing moved. Rabin insisted that they will first discuss all the details of the security arrangements and demilitarization, and postpone the discussion of the extent of the withdrawal to a later stage. And so, after two years of negotiations, the committees were still discussing the position of the early warning system and managed to produce one unsigned ‘non-paper’ which doesn’t mention the word “withdrawal”, while Rabin continues to invest huge sums in development and construction on the Golan.

It appeared that Israel is planning on many more years of negotiations, and one could wonder what their purpose is. Apparently, a cold status-quo has been maintained with Syria for years – Israel annexed the Golan, and Syria remained quiet. But in fact, it was clear that without peace, Syria won’t lift a finger against the Hizbollah, which was giving the IDF hell in Lebanon. Rabin discovered the alternative recipe: during the negotiations, Syria must restrain Hizbollah, to prove the seriousness of its intentions. About a week after the beginning of the negotiations, we were informed that “Syrian army units raided Hizbollah strongholds and confiscated weapons” (Haaretz 19.4.94).

During the two years of negotiations, there was relative quiet in Lebanon, and it appeared that it is possible to impose on the Syrians the same tactics that Rabin played on the Palestinians – endless negotiations, during which the other side replaces the IDF in the police work of the occupation. But in 1996 Assad was fed up, and he withdrew from the negotiations. Gradually, the disasters for the IDF in Lebanon renewed.

The feeling in December 1999 was that this peace round will be different. This time, “the agreement is almost all done” and will be achieved by short negotiations. It seemed that things are moving ahead at a high pace. On 16.12.99 the two sides met for a ceremony on the white house lawn and in January, they were already engaged in intensive talks in Shepherdstown. But then it all stopped.

Since the closing of the Shepherdstown meeting (on 9.1.00) there were no negotiations and in the Clinton-Assad summit in Geneva on 26.3.00 the death of the process was declared.

The formal explanation which was given for the failure of the talks was Assad’s insistence on controlling a small strip of land on the Kinneret shore. But examining the formal documents, and what appeared in the media, reveals a completely different picture.

December 1999: From Washington to Shepherdstown

The basic assumption in the Israeli public’s perception of the process was that Israel is willing to withdraw from all of the Golan (excluding a small strip of land on the Kinneret shore). But what is the source of this assumption? Not Barak’s speeches. He never said “withdrawal from the Golan” or “dismantling of settlements”. An example of the artwork of creating a wrong perception: in Yediot of 10.12.99, the main title announced: “Barak on the Golan settlers: they will leave their homes after fulfilling a historic mission”. On page two, the exact quote from Barak’s speech at the labor center meeting appears, and doesn’t include one word about evacuation – only about the importance of the settlers: “They built a home, and vineyard and village, and if it weren’t for their work, determination and moral stature it wouldn’t have been possible to begin negotiations with Syria, and we would have been now without security and without the Golan. We are all deeply connected to the Golan’s landscapes, to the settlement mission on the Golan, which was mostly done by people who were sent by our party. I say to the people of the Golan: we take your hand in appreciation of what you did.”

The only source for interpreting his words as willingness to withdraw is: “Following the speech of the prime minister … a senior minister said: ‘It’s all over, they need to start evacuating’ “.

Barak maintained the same vagueness when he left for the Shepherdstown discussions. At the airport, he announced: “I am leaving on a mission of the whole nation, to bring peace, and I am moved by the scope of the responsibility. This is where Anwar Sadat landed, and from here Menachem Begin departed to make peace with Egypt.” (Haaretz 3.1.00). This is what was absorbed in the public’s perception: the analogy with the peace treaty with Egypt. But if we pay attention, we will see that the only analogy is exactly what was said: that in the Egypt affairs there were, naturally, departures and landings at the same Tel-Aviv airport that Barak was leaving to Shepherdstown from.

Here is the rest of his speech (as quoted by Yediot of the 3.1.00): “Nobody knows what the border line will be” (a position which he will repeat all along the Shepherdstown discussions) “but I did not hide that there is a painful price for an agreement, and we will not sign one for any price. We are going towards a difficult agreement, but one which is necessary to bring an end to the era of wars. I lost many friends on the Golan and this doesn’t come easy to me. It hurts me a lot to talk about the Golan”. If you want, you can interpret this pain over discussing the Golan as willingness to give it up. But the only thing which Barak explicitly promises at the end of his speech is that “we will not sign an agreement which will not strengthen, in our opinion, the security of Israel”. And he kept this promise – he indeed didn’t sign any agreement.

The Shepherdstown Document

At the end of the Shepherdstown meeting (8.1.00) the mediators prepared a summary document (which was supposed to remain confidential) that outlines the positions of both sides. The Arab language newspaper Al Hayat printed on 9.1.00 a summary of this document, based on Syrian sources. Israel denied the authenticity of the summary and exposed the full document to the media. It appeared in Haaretz and Yediot on 13.1.00 Comparing the Syrian version with the Israeli version is highly revealing.

From examining the Syrian version, it appears that peace is indeed reachable. First, it appears that the border dispute can be resolved: It has been often claimed in the Israeli media that the debate remaining between the Israeli and Syrian negotiators regards a small strip of land between the international border (Israel’s position) and the border at the time of the 67 war (the ‘June 4’ line – Syria’s position). The importance of this strip is in the control over water sources. The news in the Syrian version of the document is the clause that “Syria acknowledges that the June 4th line is not a border and is not drawn, and therefore is willing to cooperate in drawing the lines”. (Section A: “borders committee”). Interpreters in Israel viewed this clause as signaling that Syria may be willing to compromise on this issue, and perhaps will agree to symbolic water gestures, as was the case in the agreements with Jordan.

Another claimed area of dispute has been the nature of the peace relations. On this, Syria proposes now “to constitute regular peace relations, as between two neighboring countries” (Section B: “the normal peace relations”). That is, peace like with Egypt.

As for the security concerns of Israel, Syria “welcomes the presence of international forces under the US command in the Golan Heights” (Section C: “security arrangements”). Even more significant, in this respect, is what’s behind the screen: Syria is committed to make sure that the Hizbollah will not operate against civilians in the Israeli North, and has already passed a painful test, when Lebanese children were bombarded in the Southern Lebanon village Arab Salim. Syria prevented retaliations against Israeli civilians (which were permitted in case civilians are targeted in Southern Lebanon, according to the terms of the agreement reached between Israel and the Hizbollah following the 1996 ‘Grapes of Wrath’ war).

There is no doubt that the Syrian leak to El Hayat indicated its readiness for peace.

However, the full version of this document reveals how far away agreement is (contrary to Syria which published a summary, Israel published the full text of the document). During the Shepherdstown talks it was reported that Barak refused to commit himself to a border line and like Rabin before him, insisted that the borders issue will be discussed only in the end of the negotiations. This stand is confirmed in the document. All that the document says about the border line is that “the location of the border line will be determined by taking security and other considerations into account…” (section I).

Let us examine the relevant parts of the document.

Section I – establishing peace and security in recognized borders 1. The state of war between Israel and Syria now ends and peace is established between them. The sides will maintain normal peace relations as defined in section III. 2. The international, secure and recognized border between Israel (I) and Syria (S) is the border defined in section II. The position of the border was agreed between the sides (S: based on the June 4th 1967 lines) (I: will be determined by taking security and other considerations into account, as well as other crucial considerations of both sides and their legal considerations). The state of Israel will (S: withdraw) (I: redeploy) all its military forces (S: and civilians) behind this border line according to the appendix to this agreement. (S: from this point on, each side with exercise its full sovereignty on its side of the international border, on top of what appears in this agreement). Section II – the international border 1. The international border between Israel and Syria is as appears in the maps in the appendix – this border is the permanent, secure, and recognized international border between Israel and Syria, and comes to replace any other border or boundary between them. (Haaretz, 13.1.00)

The document is a draft prepared by the US for a peace treaty, if and when it will be signed. It outlines a general framework, but marks by parentheses the points on which Israel (I) and Syria (S) differ. On the borders issue, the document refers us to an unnumbered appendix. Meaning, an appendix which doesn’t exist yet and which is to include the maps that will be agreed upon. At this stage, Israel hasn’t even offered yet a draft for the map, and only provided the general phrasing that we mentioned.

But what really reveals what Barak was willing to give for peace is the meaning he gives to this mysterious border line which will be determined at the end of negotiations: throughout the whole document the Israeli version stresses that after the peace treaty there will be no “withdrawal” of the Israeli army, but only “redeployment of forces”. The difference might appear to be semantic, but the experience of the Oslo accords, in which Israel committed only to redeployment, reveals its meaning: withdrawal entails complete evacuation of military and civilian forces, including dismantling of settlements, and shifting sovereignty, while redeployment means only moving the forces outside of certain areas, thus maintaining control of the occupying side.

Indeed, Israel insists that only military forces, but no Israel civilians, will be redeployed in the Golan Heights, while the Syrian version explicitly mentions withdrawal of military and civilian forces. Meaning, the document reaffirms what has been reported on other occasions in the Israeli media: Israel did not commit to the evacuation of a single settlement on the Golan. Israel’s intentions to leave the settlements intact appear in another place in the document:

Section III – normal peace relations Appendix – defines the agreed procedures for establishing and developing these relations (I: including the time frame for finalizing the necessary agreements and the arrangements for the inhabitants and the Israeli settlements in the areas from which the military forces will be moved according to section I) (S: ?)

All Israel has offered, then, is a meaningless redeployment which will leave the Israeli settlers and settlements in place. To remove all doubt, let’s look again at section I: Israel does not accept the Syrian position that after the moving of forces “each side will exercise its sovereignty in its side of the border”. So, whatever line will eventually be declared as ‘border’, the sovereignty over the Golan Heights will remain Israeli.

In the meantime, not only did the construction on the Golan continue all through the negotiations, but immediately when the talks began, the Golan was awarded priority A status, which gives it preference for development (Yediot 17.12.99).

After Israel published the full text of the document (which was supposed to remain confidential), the Syrians suddenly stopped the negotiations. (When the Shepherdstown round ended, the Israeli media mentioned a second round to be convened soon, but the Syrians did not return to the negotiation table). How can this be explained? It is reasonable to believe that Assad knew in advance, that Barak has no intention of offering him more than Rabin’s concept of endless negotiations. This is why he wasn’t enthusiastic, at first, about renewing the negotiations, and as was mentioned again and again in the Israeli and US media, it took massive pressure to bring him back to the negotiating table. In normal circumstances, the need for this pressure seems strange – He is offered all of the Golan with withdrawal from Lebanon; he is offered a water arrangement with Turkey, and he refuses: Without threats and pressure he won’t agree to have the Golan back. But assuming that all he was offered was to continue to fight Israel’s war with Hizbollah in return for a Rabin style peace show, it is understandable why pressure was necessary.

Assad gave in to the pressure, because he was threatened, not only with severing of the economic sanctions in the midst of a drought year, but also with a Kosovo style war: the IDF will leave Lebanon unilaterally, and with the first katyusha on the Galilee (which even Assad cannot control) the West will be at peace seeking Israel’s side when it will attack Syria.

Barak, at least, mentioned his Kosovo vision on several occasions. Already in July 1999 he said: “I am confident in entering agreements when the IDF is very strong, equipped with the most advanced systems in the world, the type which enabled in Kosovo, for the first time in History, to lead a war which will bring the surrender of a local dictator without one casualty on the attacker’s side.” (Aluf Ben, Haaretz, 27.7.99, page 3b). But this isn’t only about words. All through the negotiations, the IDF held extensive maneuvers on the Golan, which simulated war with Syria. During the Shepherdstown meeting, we were informed that the IDF is holding the fifth maneuver in this series. (Amir Oren, Haaretz 14.1.00). What would have Israel said if Syria would have done the same during negotiations?

But the carrot beside the Kosovo stick was the negotiations excuse and the appearance that Israel is indeed considering to give up the Golan. With these, Assad could justify to his people the continuation of the talks. In this spirit, he ordered to publish an optimistic version of headway at Shepherdstown. The publishing of the full Shepherdstown document canceled even the appearance. Even if the contents of the document didn’t sink in the Israeli public perception, it was published all over the world and it was no longer possible for the Syrians to pretend that they believe that Barak is close to giving up the Golan heights. Assad decided to leave the talks.

March 2000: The Clinton-Assad Summit

Clinton summoned Assad to a summit meeting in Geneva on 26.3.00. Before this summit, the media went a long way to depict the negotiations as stuck due to Syrian stubbornness. In Yediot of 24.3.00, a large lettered title for an article by Shimon Shiffer said “Clinton will tell Assad: it is your turn to be flexible”. But in the article itself we read that American sources are saying that their problem “is that Barak is not willing to give us clear answers regarding the withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines, as Assad demands. He prefers to wrap his position by vague statements about what his predecessors have committed to, commitments which he cannot erase, and we are left to interpret his hints and convey them to Damascus.” Barak is quoted in this article as saying “I will not give any political commitment to Assad before we know exactly what we will get in return…”

And indeed, the summit failed. The Israeli and most of the foreign media continued the line it started: Assad refused to compromise on the Kinneret shore, and by this said a definite no to peace. They topped this by stating that this was his last chance to reach an agreement with Israel.

But along this version, another one appeared: the one which was reported by Robert Fisk in the British Independent on 26.3.00: “The two men held three hours of talks, through interpreters, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, with the Syrian leader patiently explaining he was not going to fall into the same ‘peace’ trap as the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. He will not make peace with Israel before guaranteeing the return of all of the occupied Golan, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Mr Arafat signed a peace settlement then failed to gain a majority of the occupied West Bank or a capital in Jerusalem.”

In this narrative, the dispute is not over the 500 meters at all (“it was conveyed on behalf of Assad that he is willing to compromise on the withdrawal line, and even to full Israeli control over the whole of the Kineret shore, while continuing to negotiate water rights”). The dispute is over the model of the peace. There are two models in our history: in the Egyptian model, all stages of the withdrawal and guarantees were finalized before the treaty was signed (the later discussions surrounded the autonomy for the Palestinians). The withdrawal was set to spread over three years, and only after 2/3 of Sinai was evacuated, embassies were set up. The Taba issue remained. Both sides held it precious, and the Israelis used to spend their vacations on its shores. That’s why the decision regarding it was left for the end.

In the Arafat model, the Oslo agreement was signed with almost nothing agreed upon, besides Israeli declarations of principle about willingness for a withdrawal. Seven years later, it turns out that the Palestinians have halted the Intifadah, but Arafat didn’t get anything of what was promised to him in the west bank. What was realized was the autonomy plan which the Palestinians always rejected. Assad said that he will agree to a Sadat style peace, and not to an Arafat style one. Barak is demanding that he will first sign, open embassies and fight the Hizbollah. And then, if we will be satisfied, we will withdraw. This is the Arafat model. Barak does not agree to the Sadat model.

Yediot of the 27.3.00 also reported that Syrian sources said that Assad brought with him to Geneva “a compromise offer regarding normalization”, and that he had agreed to an early warning station on the Hermon which will be staffed by American and French technicians, along with some from a “third party”, which could include Israelis. But this appeared in the small letters. The titles announced that “The summit with Assad failed” on the first page and “Assad said no” in huge letters on pages 2 and 3.

To remove any doubt as to who is to blame for the collapse of the talks, Nahum Barnea provided an analysis in the same newspaper, in which he described the summit as a slap on the face which the ego driven Assad gave to Clinton, and added: “Syria belongs to a type of country which is disappearing. The moustache type. Assad brought with him to Geneva some dozens of such moustaches, who sat yesterday in the Hotel lobby, whispered to each other and were really frightened whenever a non-Syrian approached them. Tyrant regimes can probably last, for years. If Sadam Hussein is lasting in Iraq, there is no reason why Assad will not last in Syria…”

Beyond the demonizing which describes people as frightened moustaches with whom we certainly cannot achieve peace deals, it is worthwhile to remember that during the gulf war, Saddam Houssein was compared to Hitler, an analogy which was based mainly on his moustache. Now, Assad is compared to Hitler based on the moustache analogy Assad is Saddam is Hitler. Barnea, the senior reporter who accompanies Barak in his travels, gives a good illustration of the tones with which the media accompanied the negotiations with Syria. Already at the first meeting in Washington all we heard was how A-Shara is primitive, doesn’t understand the feelings of the Israelis, and is not a serious candidate for peace at all.

If anyone in Israel really intended to bring about some kind of a historic compromise with Syria, there was not a single evidence for this intention, either in the media or in the formal documents.

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