January 3, 2000
|On January 3, 2000 Israel and Syria began a new round of peace negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The Israeli team is led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Syrian team by Foreign Minister Fourk al-Shara. The secluded venue was chosen after the two long-time enemies resumed talks December 15-16 in Washington. While Israel and Syria have officially been engaged in peace talks since the 1991 Madrid Conference, this new round of negotiations are the first talks in nearly four years, and are the highest-level talks held to date.|
The issues Syria and Israel face are challenging. Below are a list of the
topics that will be on the table in Sheperdstown, and debated among the Israeli
and Syrian public.
The Golan Heights: The fundamental issue in Israeli-Syrian negotiations
is the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights, a narrow mountain plateau on Israel’s
northeastern border, rises east of the Sea of the Galilee, dominating the Huleh
Valley and the entire Galilee region. The 400 plus mile strategic plateau is
7.5-12.5 miles wide and is characterized by steep escarpments overlooking much
of northern Israel. The headwaters of the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee are
located in the Golan. In December 1981 the Israeli government extended Israeli
law to the Golan Heights and Israeli law was extended to the Arab residents who
Between 1948-1967, Syria used the Golan Heights as a launch pad for sniper
attacks and shelling of Israeli towns below the Heights. Besides being long
considered of key strategic importance militarily, the Golan is Israel’s key
source of water. Israel’s northern water sources lie largely in the Golan,
providing Israel with one-third of its water supply. Before 1967, Syria
interfered with this crucial water supply.
Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Six Day War and gained an additional
strip in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As part of the disengagement agreement
negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1,300 United Nations
peacekeeping forces monitor the cease fire lines in the 220-yard-wide no man’s
land which separates Syrian and Israeli checkpoints.
Land for Peace: The accepted basis of an Israel-Syria agreement is land
for peace. The sticking points is how much land (partial or full withdrawal) for
how much peace (fully normalized relations – including economic relations, or
a ‘cold peace’ of cordial diplomatic relations).
Syria has always demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from all of the Golan
Heights, to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee (the pre-1967 border).
Successive Israeli governments have expressed support for an Israeli withdrawal
from the Golan without specifying the extent of this withdrawal. In return for
this withdrawal, Israel demands that the area of the Golan falling under Syrian
control become demilitarized and that other security measures are implemented to
prevent a potential surprise Syrian attack.
Israel has always insisted that any agreement with Syria must include fully
normalized diplomatic and economic relations. Syria has resisted such relations,
and has instead promoted a more limited diplomatic arrangement. Reportedly,
President Assad fears that trade with the more developed Israel will be
detrimental to Syria’s economy.
Golan Settlements: There are approximately 32 Israeli communities on the
Golan, with a population of as much as 17,000. Any Israeli withdrawal will
entail the removal or relocation of some or all of these communities and
possibly financial compensation to those settlers affected.
The "Starting Point" for the Negotiations: In
announcing the resumption of Syria-Israel negotiations, President Clinton said
they would begin "from the point where they left off." Israel and
Syria have very different perceptions of what that point was.
Syria, long one of Israel’s most intransigent enemies, entered face-to-face
negotiations with Israel at the 1991 Madrid Conference. Subsequent bi-lateral
negotiations held at the State Department in Washington were considered notable
more for the negotiators’ posturing to the media than for any progress made
towards an agreement. The negotiations at the Wye Plantation were a little more
informal and amicable, and although broad principles were discussed, no
agreement was reached. Chief Israeli negotiator, Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich,
characterized the talks in Washington and at Wye as important as
"pre-negotiations." He claims that Israel and Syria were closest to a
"breakthrough" in August 1993 (with the "non-paper") and at
Wye in late 1995.
Throughout these negotiations, both Israel and the U.S. urged Assad to
conduct "public diplomacy," such as that embraced by President Sadat,
in which he would publicly express his desire for peace with Israel, and begin
to prepare the Syrian public for a peace agreement. After assuring Secretary
Chistopher and President Clinton that he would make such gestures, Assad’s
statements on peace were generally ambivalent and were considered insufficient
by Israel and the U.S. Assad similarly refused requests for a face-to-face
meeting with Rabin and Peres.
Israel-Syria negotiations stalled in February 1996, following the final round
of negotiations at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. Since that time, Syrian
President Hafez al-Assad has asserted that he would resume negotiations with
Israel only if the governments of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak honored the
"understanding" that the Rabin and Peres governments had reached with
Syria. Syria claimed that in the so-called "non-paper" drawn up by
Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s staff in August 1993 and in the Wye
negotiations in late 1995, Rabin and Peres agreed to a full withdrawal from the
Golan Heights as the basis of any peace agreement with Syria.
According to Israeli officials in the Netanyahu and Barak governments, as
well as former Israeli and American officials intimately involved in the
negotiations with Syria (notably Ambassador Rabinovich) there was no such
"understanding" primarily because Syria refused the Israeli condition
of normalized relations. According to Rabinovich, Prime Minister Rabin did agree
hypothetically to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but only in phases and in
conjunction with full normalized relations with Syria. Assad rejected these
terms. Rabinovich also states that Rabin was insistent that any withdrawal would
have to be approved by the Israeli public through a referendum. (According to
Israeli law, any agreement with Syria must be approved by referendum.) In
September 1996, Christopher sent a letter to Israel reiterating that the United
States did not recognize the "non-paper" as binding.
There are reports that in secret talks conducted under the Netanyahu
administration (through U.S. businessman Ronald Lauder) Assad agreed to an
"early warning" station on the Golan. Talks, however, broke down over
disagreements on normalization.
Lebanon: It has long been conventional wisdom that should a breakthrough
be reached in Israel-Syria negotiations, an agreement between Israel and Lebanon
will soon follow. Syria effectively dominates all of Lebanon, with the exception
of Israel’s Security Zone and small areas patrolled by United Nations forces
and the South Lebanon Army. Syria maintains a significant number of troops in
Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley area – home base to numerous Palestinian and other
terrorist groups, and the breeding ground for Syria’s lucrative international
trade in narcotics. Since coming into office, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has
pledged to unilaterally remove Israeli forces from southern Lebanon by summer
U.S. Role: During President Clinton’s first term, he and Secretary of
State Christopher made more than 20 trips to the Middle East and Damascus. Since
mid-1996 the Administration stepped back from this intensive effort. The
announcement by President Clinton of a resumption of negotiations signals a
strong U.S. involved in facilitating direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations.
Besides facilitating these negotiations, the U.S. will undoubtedly be
involved in financially supporting any peace agreement. The economically-ailing
Syria will be looking for significant financial aid from the U.S. Israel will
also seek financial assistance for redeployment costs, the expense of new
security measures, and compensation payments to uprooted Golan residents.
Under the Rabin administration, there was speculation about the role that the
U.S. military might be play either as monitors as peacekeepers on the Golan
Domestic Israeli Politics: Any withdrawal from the Golan Heights will be
extremely controversial among the Israeli public. Under the Rabin government
there was a massive public effort opposing any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan
Heights. The "am im hagolan" (the people are with the Golan) campaign
was extremely successful, with banners and bumper stickers blanketing the
country. While there are indications that some of the politically moderate Golan
settlers (who are known to be less ideological than those in the West Bank) may
accept an agreement with Syria, there is great cynicism among the general
Israeli public regarding President Assad’s commitment to peace.
Domestic Syrian Politics: Because of the closed nature of Syrian society
there is no real indication of how peace with Israel will be received. President
Assad is known to be in ill health and his chosen successor, son Bashar, is far
from a popular choice among Assad’s few political rivals. Analysts are divided
on whether an agreement with Syria will strengthen Assad and Bashar, or make his
regime more vulnerable.
Terrorism: Syria continues to be on the U.S. Government’s list of
countries engaging in and supporting terrorism. According to the 1997 State
Department Patterns of Global Terrorism: "There is no evidence that
Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing
international terrorist attacks since 1986." However, Syria "continues
to provide safehaven and support for several groups that engage in such
According to the State Department, terrorist groups maintaining training
camps or other facilities on Syrian territory include Ahmad Jibril's Popular
Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) and
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), who have their headquarters in Damascus. PIJ
claimed responsibility for the November 7 suicide bombing of the Mahane Yehuda
market in Jerusalem. In addition, Syria grants terrorist groups basing
privileges or refuge in areas of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley under Syrian control,
including HAMAS, the PFLP-GC, and the PIJ. Syria also acts as a conduit for the
flow of weapons and supplies from Iran to Hezbollah bases in the Bekaa Valley.
The Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK, also continues to train in
Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon, and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has resided
at least part-time in Syria. In November 1998, following intense pressure from
Turkey, Syria expelled Ocalan.
There are reports that in the past few months Syria expelled a number of
Palestinian rejectionist terrorists or restricted their activities.
Anti-Semitism: There are frequent anti-Semitic articles in the Syrian
media, including Holocaust denial. Roger Garaudy, the French Holocaust denier,
was invited to Damascus by the Ministry of Information. The government-owned
newspaper Tishrin praised Garaudy for "exposing the lies of the Zionist
movement which exaggerated what happened to Jews during the Second World War for
political purposes." Anti-Semitic books are also widely available in Syria
including "The Matza of Zion" by Syrian Minister of Defense Mustafa
Tlass which attempts to prove the 1840 blood libel against the Jews of Damascus.
It is not unusual for government officials to make anti-Semitic comments. In
August 1998, Defense Minister Tlass commented on the Lewinsky affair, saying
"it is a plot fabricated by worldwide Zionism." Tlass claimed a
"Jewish lawyer" told Kenneth Starr about the Lewinsky Affair,
concluding "all this definitely proves that worldwide Zionism and
particularly American Jews are in the service of Israel." (See ADL’s 1999
Report "Anti-Semitism in the Syrian Media")
Israeli MIA’s/POW’s: As the key power broker in Lebanon, Syria is
believe to have knowledge, or access to knowledge of the status of four missing
Israeli soldiers, Capt. Ron Arad , Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz,
who all went missing-in-action or were taken prisoner-of-war in Lebanon in the
1980’s. Israel will undoubtedly be seeking Syrian assistance on determining
the whereabouts of these men.
Capt. Arad was shot down in southern Lebanon in 1986. It is widely believed
that after his capture by members of the Lebanese Shi’ite organization, Amal,
Arad was bartered and sold over the years to different Lebanese factions and
moved back and forth between Lebanon and Iran (most likely via Syria). His last
known captor was the terror group Hizbollah, which claims that Arad disappeared
from its hands when his guards left their posts. The other three soldiers
disappeared in 1982 after a tank battle in Lebanon’s Syrian controlled Bekaa
Valley. It was reported that they were paraded in the streets of Damascus on the
day of their capture. Their whereabouts have remained a mystery since that day.
Eli Cohen: In one of the most infamous stories in the history of Israeli
intelligence, Mossad agent Eli Cohen managed to infiltrate the Syrian Ba’ath
Party in the early 1960’s and pass information to Israel on Syrian military
strategy and positions. In January 1965 Cohen was discovered and was publicly
hanged that May. Cohen’s family in Israel, his wife, three children and
brother, have long requested the return of his remains and have recently
initiated a world-wide petition calling on President Assad to make this
Alois Brunner: Alois Brunner, chief lieutenant to Adolf Eichmann has long
believed to be living in Damascus using the alias Dr. Georg Fischer. An Austrian
native, Brunner joined the SS a week after Kristallnacht and became director of
the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, the agency set up by
Eichmann to coordinate the transfer of Jews from the Third Reich. In 1995,
Germany issued an arrest warrant for Brunner, on the charge of "cruel and
malicious killing of innocent human beings." He is wanted for the murder of
at least 100,000 Jews following their deportation from Germany, France, Austria,
Greece and Slovakia to Auschwitz, from 1941-1944. In December 1999, there were
unconfirmed reports that Brunner had died in 1996 and was buried in a Damascus