25 Tamuz 5759 July 9, 1999 Issue number 225
Abu Mazen - No Negotiations Unless Barak Drops Red Lines
The following are excerpts from an interview of the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) published in the Palestinian weekly, El Ashaab, on 5 July, 1999:
(Interviewer is not identified - the interview took place in Abu Dhabi)
Question: What happens if Ehud Barak fails to back down from his four noes?
Mazen: If the four noes are the maximum of what Barak is willing to give then there will be no final status talks.
Question: After Barak won there has been a return to talking about the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement. Does such an agreement exist?
Mazen: No. A document does not exist. An agreement does not exist. All that there was was dialogue between myself and Beilin regarding the final status issues. Beilin wanted to tell Yitzhak Rabin about this dialogue but before he could Rabin was murdered and the dialogue ended.
Question: Could the dialogue be the basis for the coming talks?
Mazen: Like all dialogue it could be a basis but it is also possible to go to back to the starting point.
Question: What about Jerusalem?
Mazen: Jerusalem is occupied Arab land like the other occupied Palestinian land. Resolutions 242 and 338 should be implemented - Israel should withdraw from all occupied territory.
Following are the ministerial appointments of the 28th Government of the State of Israel (in Hebrew alphabetical order):
1. Prime Minister, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (One Israel-Labor).
2. Environment Minister Dalia Itzik (One Israel-Labor)
3. Justice Minister Yosef Beilin (One Israel-Labor).
4. Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (One Israel-Labor)
5. Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (One Israel-Labor)
6. Health Minister Shlomo Benizri (Shas)
7. Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas)
8. Industry and Trade Minister Ran Cohen (Meretz)
9. Foreign Minister David Levy (One Israel-Gesher).
10. Housing and Construction Minister Yitzchak Levy (NRP)
11. Transportation Minister Yitzchak Mordechai (Center Party)
12. Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres (One Israel-Labor)
13. Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chaim Ramon (One Israel-Labor)
14. Finance Minister Avraham Shochat (One Israel-Labor).
15. Infrastructure Minister Eliyahu Suissa (Shas)
16. Education Minister Yossi Sarid (Meretz)
17. Interior Minister Natan Sharansky (Yisrael B'Aliyah)
18. Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eliyahu Yeshai (Shas)
Prime Minister Ehud Barak received control of his new office Wednesday from his predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu, after the two met for final briefings. Barak praised Netanyahu's service as a soldier, and recalled their military experiences in the same unit together. In his speech in the Knesset Tuesday night, Barak noted "the achievements of the Netanyahu government," and said, "I have been involved with the Netanyahu family for decades, including with Bibi, and whatever the political and stylistic differences between us, our personal relations have almost never been soured, and I hope it will remain that way." Netanyahu nodded his head in agreement. Barak proceeded from his new Jerusalem office to Tel Aviv to assume his second position, that of Defense Minister. After taking over from outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Barak met with the IDF General Staff. Similar changing-of-the-guard ceremonies were held in all the other ministries this morning. A sampling of quotes during some of the change-overs:
* Education Minister Yossi Sarid: "I will be the minister of the entire public. Although you see here many of my party associates, I would like to calm everyone down: I will not flood the office here with my associates. This ministry will not be a party organ or the ministry of a particular sector... I will make every effort not to fight with my Deputy Minister [Sha'ul Yahalom, of the National Religious Party], because I like to do the unexpected."
* Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami: "We must reach a compromise with the Palestinians on the Orient House issue."
* Housing Minster Rabbi Yitzchak Levy: "I plan to build in the Negev, the Galilee, and Yesha." (Arutz 7 July 7)
Yisrael B'aliyah Splits; Labor Ministers Unhappy
The Yisrael B'Aliyah party has broken up. Two of its Knesset Members, Roman Bronfman and Alexander Tzinker, have formed their own faction, named Mifleget HaMachar - The Party of Tomorrow. Bronfman said that the coalition agreements regarding the issues of "religion and state" are not sufficient. Yisrael B'Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky called the move "traitorous." The future appointment of Deputy Minister Yuli Edelstein to the post of Minister of Immigration is now in doubt, since his party is left with only four MKs.
Another squeaky wheel in the coalition alliance is the stated objections by Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg to the plan to expand the government from 18 to 24 ministers. Burg said today that he will "not rush" to have the Knesset change the Basic Laws. Beilin said yesterday that he believes that it would be a mistake to change the Basic Laws simply for coalition purposes. He said he would present the bill to the Knesset, in accordance with the wishes of the Prime Minister, but added that he will recommend that the government not change the existing law. Ma'ariv political commentator Shalom Yerushalmi - who said that the proposed change is "reckless" and that a public campaign should begin against it - told Arutz-7 today that the above dissatisfaction is "just the tip of the iceberg" of the internal strife festering within Labor party circles. "Almost no minister is happy with his portfolio," he said. "Shimon Peres is disappointed with his limited Ministry of Regional Development, Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami did not want Public Security; Dalia Itzik is bitter about the Environment, and Yossi Beilin can't stand the Justice Ministry." Though he agreed that an all-out rebellion in party ranks is improbable, Yerushalmi observed that "[Israeli] political life is dynamic, and future crises could be in the offing. Many ministers may not finish their terms. (Arutz 7 July 7)
Dissatisfaction Within the PA, Too
The Palestinian Authority is also not particularly happy with the new government, especially given the distancing of certain ministers from positions of diplomatic influence. Arutz-7 correspondent Haggai Huberman reports that the PA had hoped that men such as Peres, Ramon, Beilin, and Ben-Ami - whose left-wing positions are well-known - would be more involved with the diplomatic process. "Arafat originally preferred Netanyahu over Barak," reported Huberman, "because under Netanyahu, the PA's international standing was improved. Arafat's aides, however, were in favor of Barak, because of people such as Peres and Beilin with whom they had forged close ties and who would come along with Barak. In the end, both Arafat and his aides are unhappy: Netanyahu lost - and Beilin and Peres are not in the picture!" Huberman enumerated a series of other Palestinian fears vis-a-vis the new government: "The Palestinians know that Barak doesn't exactly like the Wye Agreement. They are afraid that he will attempt to come to an agreement with Syria first, and ignore them, during this last year of [U.S. President] Clinton. They fear that [Syrian President] Assad and Barak may have come to a quiet agreement to 'get' Arafat. Despite Barak's announcement yesterday that the Palestinian and Syrian tracks are of equally high priority, they are well aware that Israel never was able to conduct two peace processes at once. They further know that Barak has ignored Arafat for the past seven weeks. They feel that they now have a new Netanyahu, but one with a better standing in the world and in Washington." (Arutz 7 July 7)
Clinton's Remarks Draw Fire
In a White House press conference last Thursday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.S. President Bill Clinton responded to a question on the issue of Palestinian displaced persons, "I would like it if the Palestinian people felt free and more free to live wherever they like, wherever they want to live." Clinton's statement was understood by Israeli officials as an endorsement of the position that Palestinian Arabs - who fought against Israel or fled in its War of Independence - are entitled to return. Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak strongly condemned Clinton's remarks. In a statement released by his office, Barak labeled Clinton's remarks "unacceptable" and encouraged the U.S. President to clarify his position. The Likud and National Religious parties also criticized Clinton's remarks, as well as a senior Israel Embassy official in Washington. On the other hand, Labor MK Yossi Beilin advised not to attribute great significance to Clinton's comments, "since they were merely a spontaneous response to a reporter's question." In an interview which appeared in the Arab newspaper Kul-AlaArab, published in Nazareth, Beilin stated that he is "prepared to have the Palestinian flag fly over the Temple Mount." Beilin added that his joint agreement with the PA's Abu Mazen several years ago established, "Jerusalem's Arab residents are entitled to have their own city within Greater Jerusalem. The State of Palestine will recognize the western neighborhoods of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and Israel would recognize the Arab quarters in Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital." Chairman of the Likud Knesset faction MK Ruby Rivlin congratulated Barak for his tough stance on the Arab refugee issue and called upon him to silence voices within his party "like that of Yossi Beilin, whose positions erode the national consensus against the return of Palestinian Arab displaced persons to any part of Israel." (Arutz 7 July 2)
Progress in Eastern Jerusalem
The Ateret Cohanim association has progressed to the next stage of construction - the filling of foundations - at its property in Mt. of Olives (Ras el-Amoud) in eastern Jerusalem. All of the permits and papers are in order, and the works are proceeding undisturbed. The association delayed the start of the construction until after the elections at the express request of outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Ateret Cohanim also announced that a Jewish family with 11 children moved in today to a recently-reclaimed apartment in the old Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. (Arutz 7 July 5)
Total Freeze Demanded
A total freeze on settlement construction and in Jerusalem is the condition for the beginning of permanent-status negotiations. So said Abu Ala, chairman of the Palestinian parliament. Another PA figure, Nabil Shaath, said last week that the Palestinian strategy is to take all it can during the interim stage, but to refuse to sign a permanent status agreement until all Palestinian rights are achieved. (Arutz 7 July 5)
Likud Opposes "Wasteful" Expansion of Government
The Likud has begun its parliamentary opposition activity with a request to Attorney-General Elyakim Rubenstein regarding the legality of Ehud Barak's proposal to enlarge the government. The Likud feels that Barak's plan to change the law and expand the government from 18 to 24 Cabinet ministers is "bending the basic laws to his political needs," and should not be allowed. Outgoing Science Minister Silvan Shalom explained to Arutz 7 that the addition of six new Cabinet ministers would be a tremendous waste of money: "Netanyahu also could have done this in order to form his government more easily, and it may even have helped him last the full four years of his term. But he did not do so... We are also very much against the planned implementation of the so-called Norwegian law [according to which a government minister must resign from the Knesset, making room for the next person on his party list to enter the Knesset], which will cost an astronomical 400 million shekels." (Arutz 7 July 4)
US Congress Condemns Efforts to Revive 181
The United States Congress passed a resolution last Thursday condemning Palestinian efforts to circumvent UN Resolutions 242 and 338 by attempting to revive the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (Resolution 181). The Congress calls this attempt a violation of, and a risk to, "the Oslo peace process." (Arutz 7 July 4)
Confessions by The Media
Sharp criticism of the Israeli media was heard this week - by the media itself. The latest edition of the media newspaper, "The Seventh Eye," chastises Israeli radio, television and newspapers for their treatment of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud party during the election campaign. In one piece, the paper claims that an activist employed by Ehud Barak's One Israel party actually threatened to shoot Likud Knesset candidate Liat Rivner. In a report that gives credence to pre-election Likud allegations, "The Seventh Eye" discusses the Channel 2 news staff's decision not to publicize extensive information it possessed on the criminal activities of the fictitious organizations associated with Ehud Barak. Voice of Israel broadcaster Carmit Guy issues her own condemnation of the Ha'aretz newspaper for its treatment of Prime Minister Netanyahu in the course of the campaign. She even hints that many of the anonymous anti-Netanyahu advertisements in the paper were composed by the Ha'aretz editorial staff itself. (Arutz 7 July 2)
US Pressure By Evelyn Gordon
Ehud Barak's voters have a right to feel betrayed. Not, as Meretz and Shinui would have it, because of the broad coalition he is on the verge of presenting. Barak never made any secret of his desire for a broad coalition, which he correctly considers essential to reaching diplomatic agreements without tearing the country apart. He has repeatedly said that he wants be prime minister of all the people; he is hardly to blame if the leaders of Meretz and Shinui fondly hoped that that was a mere bromide rather than a blueprint for putting together a coalition.
Indeed, the betrayal is nothing Barak himself is responsible for. Rather, it comes from a major, if unofficial, player in his campaign: US President Bill Clinton.
One of the arguments often used to batter outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was that he had brought relations with the US to an unprecedented low. The Clinton administration, however, sent a strong message that if Israelis would only replace Netanyahu with Barak, they would find the US much more understanding and supportive of Israel's concerns in the future. And many Israelis naively believed this.
In the six weeks since the election, however, Clinton has made it amply clear that this promise of support was a lie. He may not actually be trying to make life difficult for Barak, but he could hardly have done more damage if he had been.
The first step was his decision two weeks ago to once again postpone construction of the US embassy in west Jerusalem thereby implicitly stating that even pre-1967 Israel was disputed territory that ought to be on the negotiating table. This is a position more extreme than even the Palestinians have officially taken, and one that hardly accords with a new era of understanding and support for Israel's concerns.
Then, last week, Clinton did it again: He stated at a press conference that Palestinians should be free to live wherever they like - a statement interpreted by both Israelis and Palestinians as expressing support for a Palestinian right of return to pre-1967 Israel. This is a position that every Israeli government - even the far left Labor-Meretz government of 1992-96 - has rejected out of hand, as spelling the end of the Jewish state. It is also a position far more pro-Arab than the US has ever taken before.
Barak, who was embarrassingly silent on the Jerusalem issue two weeks ago, finally woke up this time around and sent Clinton a strongly worded demand for a retraction. To his credit, he has refused to accept clarifications by lower-level administration officials as sufficient.
But even if Barak gets his retraction, the damage has already been done. First of all, by raising Palestinian expectations, Clinton has made it much harder for Barak to obtain a final-status deal acceptable to a majority of the Israeli public.
Palestinian officials say they don't seriously expect Israel to agree to a right of return. But once the US has recognized this as a legitimate demand, the Palestinians are likely to insist on deeper concessions in other areas as compensation for giving up their claim to a right of return.
Even more serious from Barak's point of view, however, is the fact that Clinton's remarks on the right of return indicate that no Israeli position, however vital it is deemed by the new government, will actually enjoy US backing. There is no issue in Israel today which enjoys a wall-to-wall consensus like that of opposition to the right of return. If Clinton will not back Israel on this, he will not back it on anything.
This is particularly problematic because for most Israelis, US support has always been the only possible asset that could compensate for the tangible assets they will be forfeiting to the Palestinians, and the real risks they will be exposing themselves to as a result. With Clinton now having made it plain that no such support will be forthcoming even to a peace government, Barak is going to have a much harder time selling any agreement to the Israeli public.
It is now clear that Clinton lied to Israeli voters just as he has repeatedly lied to Americans: It is not a government committed to pursuing negotiations that he wants, but a government committed to capitulating to every conceivable Palestinian demand, present and future. And he will have no qualms about applying ruthless pressure on the new government to conform to his expectations.
That isn't exactly what Barak bargained for when he promised his voters an improvement in US-Israeli relations. And it certainly isn't what his voters bargained for when they supported Clinton's choice. (Jerusalem Post July 6 )
Barak Keeps Tight Rein
Arutz 7 correspondent Yehoshua Mor-Yosef reports that the new Prime Minister will be a very strong one - "at least on paper." Barak's authority is prevalent in many clauses of the coalition agreement, says Mor-Yosef. "For instance, in arguments that may arise between the National Religious Party and Shas regarding the division of the Religious Affairs Ministry, or between the NRP and Meretz in the Education Ministry, Barak will be the final arbiter. Furthermore, Barak saw how his predecessor Netanyahu suffered from coalition MKs who proposed private bills that were against government policies. For this reason, Barak has established an 18-member 'coalition administration,' comprised of nine One Israel MKs and nine from the coalition partners, which will decide whether a given bill should be proposed. Here, too, in case of disagreement, the decision of the coalition chairman - Ophir Pines, a faithful Barak-underling - will prevail. Other proposed coalition bills must pass the approval of a Ministerial Committee on Legislation, headed by another Barak-man." Mor-Yosef further noted that the new Ministerial Committee on Jewish Construction in Judea and Samaria also has Barak stamped all over it: "Its seven members will include Barak himself and another One Israel minister, and its decisions must be unanimous. If there is a disagreement among the members, the fine print says that Barak will decide. Barak will also have the right to 'legally bring about the cancellation of the previous government's settlement decisions,' as well as to decide whether the sessions will be secret." Political commentators are unsure whether the new government will last its full term, given the rivalries among the personalities and parties therein. "Barak's government may be compared to a ship loaded with many barrels of cargo," concluded Mor-Yosef. "While it's docked in the port, it looks very impressive bulging over with merchandise. But once it starts towards sea and the turbulent currents, the barrels start pushing against each other, and the slightest knock can send one of them reeling and the whole thinly-connected network falling into the ocean." (Arutz 7 July 6)
By Daniel Pipes
The most dramatic moment of the recently completed Israeli election campaign was not a clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, Ehud Barak. Rather, it was a TV debate in mid-April between Netanyahu and Yitzhak Mordechai, Netanyahu's own former defense minister who had quit to challenge his old boss on a minor-party ticket. In a discussion of Syria, Netanyahu declared that he would not "give [Syrian President Hafez al-] Assad what Barak is willing to give Assad:' Mordechai stunned the Israeli electorate with his dramatic reply~ He coldly dared Netanyahu to repeat his claim. "Look me in the eye, Bibi, ... look me in the eye7 he demanded. Netanyahu did not repeat his statement.
Just what was Mordechai talking about? Israeli political circles buzzed about the exchange. Then, in late May, government sources gave the Israeli press a sketchy story about back-channel talks between Jerusalem and Damascus during Netanyahu's tenure. Now, however, the full story can be told. Based on information from several sources with firsthand knowledge of the talks, it is clear that, during 1998, Netanyahu became deeply involved in a secret negotiation with Assad over the terms and conditions under which Israel would transfer the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, back to Syrian control. Even more astonishing, some of those involved in the talks make the assertion-hotly disputed by Netanyahu and his supporters-that the prime minister, in contrast to both his hard4ine image and his promises to supporters, was ready to make big con cessions to Assad for a peace agreement from which Israel would get diplomatic recognition, trade, and other attributes of peace.
The American-encouraged negotiating track between Syria and Israel had stalled when Netanyahu came to office in May1996. Assad insisted that negotiations resume where they had left off with the previous Labor government- namely, at an agreement in principle that Israel return the Golan Heights. Netanyahu saw no reason to concede this in advance. Although both the U.S. government and Israel's Labor Party agreed with Netanyahu on this point, Assad would not budge, and diplomacy shuddered to a halt.
For the next two years, Assad continued to refuse direct or official negotiations, but, in the two-month period of August to September1998, he did agree to what one high4evel Israeli calls "very intensive and very unofficial" talks. These negotiations took place completely outside any governmental framework. Rather, private American citizens went back and forth between the two countries. Ronald Lauder, a New York- based businessman and friend of the prime minister's, alone with his aide Allen Roth, forwarded Netanyahu's ideas to Assad. George Nader, publisher of the Washington-based Middle East Insight, presented Syrian views. While there may have been other negotiating tracks, this was the only one that Netanyahu saw as possibly leading to a breakthrough; as an aide of his puts it, this was the "most serious and credible channel" because it involved discussions with top officials in both countries.
The Israeli team included Netanyahu; Mordechai; Uzi Arad, the prime minister's diplomatic adviser; and Danny Naveh, the Cabinet secretary Others involved included Yaakov Amidror, an aide to Mordechai, and Brigadier General Shimon Shappira, military secretary to the prime minister. On the Syrian side, Assad depended primarily on Foreign Minister Farnq ash-Shar and Walid Mualem, his ambassador in Washington.
Syrians and Israelis never had direct contact; instead, the talks took place in classic shuttle-diplomacy style. All told, the Americans visited Damascus nine times, meeting with Assad on each occasion, and made a similar number of trips to Israel. All the participants made great efforts to keep the negotiations secret; for example, the American go-betweens only traveled on their own plane, always stopping in Cyprus between Jerusalem and Damascus. Not even the U.S. government was informed.
But, beyond these basic facts, almost everything about the talks-why they happened in the first place, which side made what concessions, and why nothing came of them-is a matter of contention among the participants. Netanyahu's critics, including some former members of his inner circle, maintain that Netanyahu started the talks for two reasons. First, he feared that the Americans would ram a deal with the Palestinians down his throat (as indeed happened at Wye in October 1998) unless he could produce a deal with Syria Second, his government was reeling from a succession of crises, domestic and foreign, mostly of its own making. Netanyahu wanted to reestablish himself with a major, world-shaking event Yet drama on the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Palestinian tracks had been used up; the only neighbors left were Syria and its satrapy, Lebanon. The sight of Netanyahu, the tough-talking Israeli, flying to Damascus to sign a peace treaty with an archenemy would revitalize his prime ministry A highly favorable world reaction would be accompanied by howls of rage from Netanyahu's own coalition, which would promptly collapse. But the breakthrough with Syria would win Netanyahu a stunning endorsement at the polls and a second term as prime minister.
Netanyahu's critics profess astonishment at the security price they say he was willing to pay Assad in each one of the four main areas under discussion-the extent and the timing of an Israeli withdrawal, demilitarized zones, and early warning stations. Rabin had informally agreed to hand the Golan Heights to Syria, pulling Israeli troops back to an international boundary delineated between Syria and Palestine in 1923. Shimon Peres went a step further and, in April 1995, publicly agreed to this line as the border. But neither of these Labor Party prime ministers, condemned as reckless doves by Netanyahu, ever accepted the Syrian demand that Israel go back even farther, to the lines in place on June 4, 1967, before war broke out.
Although the 1967 lines give Syria only 25 additional square miles, they include land with both symbolic and hydraulic significance: were Syria to get them, it would have much greater leverage over the Ban yas, Yarmuk, and Jordan rivers, as well as Lake Tiberias-or nearly half of Israel's water supplies. Sources critical of Netanyahu say he began the talks by picking up where his Labor predecessors left off: Israel would return the territory on the Golan, accepting the international border but not the cease- fire lines. Yet, faced with Assad's steadfast rejection of these terms, he capitulated and, in a stunning reversal, agreed that Israel would, indeed, return to the 1967 lines. Second, having initially demanded that the Israeli withdrawal take place over a ten- to 15-year period, he ultimately settled on 16 to months. "The years kept flying by real fast;' notes one Netanyahu confidant.
To prevent a repetition of the surprise attack from Syria in 1973, Netanyahu demanded an extensive demilitarization of Syrian territory near the Golan and an early warning station. This was to include no fewer than three demilitarized zones in Syria: the one closest to Israel completely empty of troops, a second with only lightly armed troops, and the third with troops bearing only defensive weapons, aides say. The third of these zones would extend well beyond Damascus, a prospect that upset the Syrians more than anything else. According to the critics, Assad simply refused the suggestion, insisting that Israel would never determine how many troops he would deploy around his capital city. Netanyahu backed off on this point, too; by the end of the negotiations, a "semiagreement" lacking specifics was reached that each side would somewhat demilitarize a single zone ten kilometers wide along its border.
As for the final issue, Netanyahu demanded that Israel maintain in perpetuity a high-tech early warning station atop Mount Hermon, the 9,OOO4oot mountain that dominates the Syrian-Israeli border. When Assad balked at this, Netanyahu was said to have offered Assad a deal under which the two sides would share control over the warning station. No, again, Assad said-though he did agree to a U.N. team manning the station. If "United Nations" meant U.S. and French nationals, Netanyahu said, he could accept it. There the matter was left, with Israelis looking at the prospect of access only to the information that the American or French governments wished them to have.
If Netanyahu was willing to give so much, why, in the end, was there no deal? His critics say it was not because he had any reservations about these terms-he was eager to sign-but because he personally lacked the credibility to make such far- reaching concessions that so starkly contradicted the principles of both his party and Cabinet. He needed a defense heavyweight to endorse the deal. During the active period of negotiations, that would have to have been Mordechai, an ex-general. Netanyahu twisted Mordechai's arm, but Mordechai would not (in his words) "jeopardize Israel's security." Mordechai's reluctance, one close observer told me, "frustrated the hell out of Bibi." So, when Ariel Sharon was appointed foreign minister on October 9, 1998, Netanyahu asked for his blessing. Sharon also balked. Lacking an endorsement from Mordechai or Sharon, Netanyahu could not go it alone. As a result, the agreement was stillborn.
A Netanyahu supporter calls all of this "the opposite of the truth" and "an effort to rewrite history:' The Netanyahu camp insists that his political ambitions had nothing to do with the talks. Rather, they say, Netanyahu signaled the Syrians shortly upon taking office that he wanted to talk but that he needed more security concessions than Labor had required. In 1997, he sent what an aide characterizes as a "barrage of messages" to Damascus to reinforce this point. The talks began in mid-'98, when an emissary came from Damascus to Israel saying that Assad was ready.
While Netanyahu's camp concedes that he did show flexibility on the issue of a timetable for Israeli withdrawal, it insists that he took a hard line on the three other issues. According to Netanyahu and his aides, the Syrians time and again demanded that Israel accept the 1967 borders but Netanyahu said no. Until it was clear where and how the Syrian military forces would redeploy, he insisted, Israel could not commit itself to specific lines. "Never" did he agree to a borderline, an aide says.
Netanyahu supporters say Assad accepted the idea of three demilitarized zones but wanted them to be less than ten kilometers wide. Netanyahu said no, and the Syrians acknowledged the need to make them wider. At that point, the talks broke off. As for a high-tech listening and watching post on Mount Hermon, Assad balked at this but did concede that Israelis would remain on the Golan Heights for some years. Netanyahu aides uniformly characterize this as "progress."
Indeed, Netanyahu's supporters claim much was achieved from Israel's point of view, despite the ultimate collapse of the talks. They say Netanyahu forced Assad to improve his offer over what he had given the Labor Party on such matters; thus the talks leave his successor, Barak, in an enhanced position. There was no deal on his watch, Netanyahu told his Cabinet recently, because "Israel did not consent to Syria's territorial demands."
The Netanyahu faction seems especially incensed at the claim that Netanyahu was willing to cut a deal but had to be stopped by Mordechai and Sharon. Uzi Arad, for example, says flatly that "Mordechai supported Netanyahu's position." Admittedly, he was "slow in acting but at no point opposed." As for Sharon, one participant says, he did effectively block the deal by not pursuing it-perhaps because it was not his own idea.
Netanyahu's critics contend that things really ended much earlier, when Mordechai and Arad were tasked with drawing up a map to give to the Syrians but Mordechai stopped the process by never providing one. The negotiations "died because no map was produced;' says a critic. For their parts, both Mordechai and Sharon have lent credence to the critics by publicly confirming their role in stopping the deal. Mordechai declared in his TV debate with Netanyahu: "More than once ... I acted as a responsible defense minister of this country and prevented what had to be prevented. You know things would have looked very different otherwise." Ha'aretz reports that Sharon "told fellow Likud members ... that he torpedoed the third-party efforts with Syria:' It also quotes "government sources saying that, when Sharon learned about the talks in September 1998, he confronted Netanyahu and said there was "not enough of a basis for Israel to put forward any withdrawal map'
Other circumstantial factors seem to support the critics' case. For all its emphatic certainty, the Netanyahu camp has seemed inconsistent and devious ever since Mordechai's "look me in the eye" challenge. For example, right after that dramatic confrontation, a senior official at the prime minister's office announced that "Mordechai does not know anything about" the talks between Jerusalem and Damascus-a clearly preposterous claim that even other pro-Netanyahu types have contradicted. One of them told me, for example, that Mordechai was "in the picture throughout:'
And, while Netanyahu called Sharon's claim to have "torpedoed" the talks "nonsense" and "a false charge," the only support he offered for this statement was the legalistic and irrelevant point that Sharon "was appointed foreign minister only after the secret contacts ended." Netanyahu's argument also begs the question: If the prime minister was not doing anything contrary to his own party platform, why does he now claim to have kept the negotiations a complete secret from even his defense and foreign ministers?
Anyone who has followed Netanyahu's career will instantly recognize in this episode the man's well-established pattern of speaking loudly but carrying a small stick. For example, Netanyahu's trademark issue throughout his career was a policy of tough antiterrorism- he founded an institute dedicated to this goal, wrote a book on the topic, and made it the subject of innumerable public appearances. But, when the U.S. government offered to extradite to Israel a suspected Hamas terrorist, Musa Abu Marzook, Netanyahu took a bye (seemingly scared of the trouble this would cause). Abu Marzook now lives as a free man and a high Hamas official in Amman, Jordan.
Thus does the evidence point heavily to the unhappy likelihood that Netanyahu's version is not true. More precisely, he appears to be boasting of his earlier, tougher positions with the Syrians but hiding the concessions he made as the talks went on. In fact, Netanyahu gave more to the Syrians than did either of the predecessors he so deeply scorns, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. And, judging by new reports coming out of Israel, he also gave away more than Barak would.
This extraordinary episode reveals nothing new about the Syrian side, which merely confirmed its well-established pattern, going back 25 years, of attempting to draw maximum leverage from a position of weakness. As in the past, Assad gave the absolute minimum in negotiations and doled out concessions in the slowest and most incremental manner.
But the story of the secret Netanyahu-Assad channel has important implications in two areas: Israeli politics and the future of Syrian-Israeli relations. The negotiations reveal that Netanyahu is a leader who would do almost anything for power. And, if Assad now demands that Barak start where Netanyahu left off, Netanyahu's having discussed vast concessions to Damascus will weaken the negotiating position of his successor. Advantage, Syria.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of three books on Syria, most recently Syria Beyond the Peace Process (Washington Institute for Near East Policy). (The New Republic July 5)