A collection of the week's news from Israel
A service of the Bet El Twinning Committee of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto
21 Shvat 5760
January 28, 2000
Issue number 256
Sunday February 6, 8:00pm
T.J. Leyden, a former Neo-Nazi, will be speaking at BAYT.
Status of Syrian and Palestinian Tracks
Prime Minister Barak said Wednesday that he expects the talks with the Syrians to resume in six weeks' time. He instructed Israeli negotiators Uri Saguy and Moshe Kochanovsky to postpone their trip to the United States Tuesday, after their Syrian counterparts neither showed up in Washington nor announced an alternate date for their arrival. On Wednesday, Barak, in Stockholm, continued to praise Syrian President Assad as a "strong leader" and a "man of his word," even as the Syrian press continues to accuse Barak of lying about his desire for peace. On the Palestinian track, Ma'ariv reports that Ehud Barak has made a final decision - based on domestic political considerations - to put off the transfer of Jerusalem suburb Abu Dis to the Palestinians for now. The paper reports that such a move can only be made in the final-status agreement, Barak feels. Meanwhile, Palestinian sources report that Yasser Arafat has "agreed" to allow Israel to retain settlement blocs next to the Green Line, in exchange for other Israeli land that will be assigned to the Palestinian Authority. Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams are to begin an intensive round of talks on Sunday designed to formulate a final-status framework agreement by mid-February. (arutzsheva.org Jan 26)
Soldier Killed in Lebanon
St.-Sgt. Rafi Zangvill, 24 was killed in southern Lebanon Tuesday when a Hizbullah mortar shell scored a direct hit on his guard post. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh warns that continued Hizbullah aggression against Israeli and SLA targets will draw a sharp reaction from the IDF. He blamed Syria for not acting to restrain Hizbullah, and said that the fighting there endangers the talks with the Syrians. The death of St.-Sgt. Zangvill was the first IDF fatality in Lebanon since mid-August. (arutzsheva.org Jan 26)
Water-Sharing Plan Revealed
Water from the Litani River, in southern Lebanon, will be piped to Israel, and Syria will receive water from the Kinneret Sea. This is the plan that is currently being formulated by the Israeli water committee delegation to the Israeli-Syrian talks. Ehud Barak had planned to keep the program secret "until the eve of the referendum, and then when the anti-withdrawal people would be screaming that we will be left without the Golan's water sources, he would suddenly produce this plan, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, and silence the opposition." The water-sharing plan can be worked in either of two ways: either diverting water from the Litani's "bend" (where the river turns north) to the Jordan River and the Kinneret, or piping water from the western end of the river towards Rosh HaNikra (the north-western corner of Israel). (arutzsheva.org Jan 26)
Yesha Protection Reduced on All Fronts
Arutz-7 has learned that by the end of the year 2000, the IDF plans to totally cease army guard duty within the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria. The number of IDF guards in Yesha has already been decreased by 40% over the past several weeks. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Sha'ul Mofaz informed a gathering of Home Front Command officers last Thursday that budgetary constraints are to blame, and added that most of the residents are army veterans who can protect themselves. As if this were not enough, the Magen David Adom medical organization also announced yesterday that it would cut back on special emergency services throughout Yesha by the end of this month, as future government funding has not been approved. The Yesha Council has asked for an urgent meeting with Deputy Defense Minister Sneh "before the entire network collapses."
In a related item, the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria recommends that plans for 11 bypass roads be shelved. The routes are intended to pass through areas that have been transferred to Palestinian control, thus obviating - according to the Administration - their necessity. The roads were planned during the Rabin, Netanyahu, and even Shamir governments. Among the routes likely to be cancelled are the Nachliel-Talmon road in western Binyamin, the el-Aroub and Jenin bypass routes, the eastern section of the Cross-Judea highway, a road to the pre-1967 Ta'nach settlements, and others. (arutzsheva.org Jan 25)
P.A. Protests Planned Memorial Minute at Sydney Olympics
The Palestinian Authority is calling upon Arab states to consider not showing up for the Olympics in Sydney, Australia this summer. An editorial in today's PA's official organ Al Hayat al-Jadida protests the plan to begin the Games with a minute of silence in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972. (A7 Jan 25)
Another senior Palestinian Authority personality has publicly called for the destruction of the State of Israel. PA Gen. Salim Al-Odiya explained this weekend that the goal of the modern Palestinian revolution was, and still is, the liberation of Palestine. In an article in the official PA newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Al-Odiya wrote, "Palestine has suffered invasions in the past, but in the end the invaders have fled." The Islamic Jihad, headquartered in Syria, announced last weekend that it would continue to fight against Israel even if there is peace between Syria and Israel. "From the Arab point of view, peace agreements with Israel are simply cease-fires, and Israel will continue to be a foreign element in the Middle East for many years to come. Whoever is expecting a new Middle East is mistaken." So said Mossad head Ephraim Halevy to a gathering of Arab diplomats in Jerusalem last Friday. The Israeli Ministry responded to the media's report of the speech by stating only that the reports do not faithfully represent what Levy said at the gathering. (A7 Jan 23)
U.S. Offers Rewards for Capture of Terrorists...in Pakistan
The United States government has placed advertisements in leading Pakistani newspapers, seeking information about a recent terrorist attack against Americans in Pakistan - yet it refuses to place ads in Palestinian Arab newspapers to obtain information about Palestinian Arab killers of Americans. The Pakistani ads ask for information concerning a November 1999 attack in which rockets were fired at the American Embassy in Islamabad. "To prevent further attacks and to bring the criminals who committed the atrocity to justice, the U.S. government is offering a substantial monetary reward for information," the advertisements say. The American victims of Arab terror are not even mentioned on the State Department's web site, www.heroes.net, even though other victims of foreign terror are featured there. A law was passed in the U.S. less than two months ago, requiring the State Department to provide Congress with regular, detailed reports on American efforts to bring the killers to trial. (arutzsheva.org Jan 23)
Olmert Speaks Out
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert objects to the transfer of Abu Dis and Beit Hanina to Palestinian control. Olmert said Monday that whoever gives over these neighborhoods - immediately north and east of Jerusalem, respectively - would be dividing Jerusalem. "There is no way to detach Beit Hanina from Jerusalem without detaching Pisgat Ze'ev and N'vei Yaakov from the city," he said. Regarding Abu Dis, Olmert said, "It is only several hundred meters away from the Temple Mount, and whoever allows the Palestinians to establish there a control center [i.e., capital] is inviting incessant Palestinian undermining." (arutzsheva.org Jan 24)
Kinneret Level Rises
The level of the Kinneret is now 212.79 meters below sea level [21 centimeters higher than the red line], and it has gone up by 39 centimeters since the beginning of the winter. (arutzsheva.org Jan 24)
Following years of talks, Israeli Defense Ministry officials in the U.S. and representatives of Boeing Company have concluded a deal in which Israel will acquire 12 Apachi Longbow attack helicopters. This is the most advanced model of the same Apachi - considered the best attack helicopter in the world - that has been in use by the Israel Air Force for the past ten years. Its many improvements include enhanced anti-tank fighting capabilities, the ability to identify 128 different enemy targets, four-times-more-precise target hitting, and the ability to wage air battles against other helicopters and even planes. Israel took advantage of the long negotiations to secure a 35% price reduction, and will pay $450 million. Israel will join the U.S., Great Britain, and Holland as the only countries in the world to operate the Apachi Longbow. (arutzsheva.org Jan 24)
Yesha Population Rises, Albeit Slower
The Jewish population in Judea and Samaria grew last year by almost 3%, and now numbers 177,000 people. (arutzsheva.org Jan 24)
MKs in The Golan
"We're on the Map" - a project aimed at bringing one million people to Yesha and the Golan within a year, and led by Yaakov (Katzele) Katz and Beit El Mayor Uri Ariel - brought several busloads of Israelis to the Golan Sunday. Among those arriving to plant trees were Likud MKs Danny Naveh and Silvan Shalom. MK Naveh pointed out that despite the inclement weather, "we are planting in the Golan today to express our opposition to Prime Minister Barak's plans to uproot Golan residents from their land." Naveh was unimpressed with the fact that the Syrian-Israeli talks had been postponed: "This is a very deceptive tactic. Barak may not have promised Assad in writing that he would give away the Golan, but the supposed 'crises' taking place now -dealing with where exactly to draw the new border - do not indicate that Prime Minister Barak is holding firm against a withdrawal from the Golan Heights." MK Shalom, who has spearheaded a new bill aimed at requiring a special majority in the national Golan referendum, sounded optimistic about its chances of becoming law. "We have already signed up all Likud MKs, as well as many others, bringing us very close to a majority in the Knesset," Shalom said. He added that MKs Moti Zandberg (Shinui), Chaim Katz (One Nation), and Maxime Levy (Gesher-One Israel) have also signed their support of the bill. Shalom welcomed MK Maxime Levy's possible intentions to re-join the Likud. "He grew up in the Likud," Shalom said, "and he is basically a 'foreigner' in One Israel. Right now there are technical problems with his leaving One Israel and becoming a separate faction within Gesher, but we hope that it will be just be a matter of time before these problems are ironed out."`
Yitzchak: Weizman Was Bribed Not to Join Gov't
Journalist Yoav Yitzchak has done it again. Only a short time after he reported the monies President Weizman received from Eduard Sarousi, which has resulted in Weizman currect criminal investigation, Yitzchak revealed the most potentially-damaging information to date. He claimed that businessman David Blass gave Weizman and a partner a loan of $3.5 million in 1984. In exchange, Weizman promised that his 3-seat political party, Yachad, would not join a narrow government led by the Likud's Yitzchak Shamir. Weizman's refusal to join Shamir at the time and receive a high ministerial post - which led to the formation of a government by Shimon Peres - was seen as a sign of his great personal integrity. Ma'ariv reports that Yitzchak claims the following evidence: a note ostensibly written by Weizman, that has been seen by several witnesses, promising not to join the Shamir government; an oral confirmation by Weizman's partner of the loan - although the partner denied any connection with Weizman's promise to Blass; a letter by a then-government minister to Blass which stated, "That which determined, more than anything else, the establishment of the government was the agreement with Yachad, which was achieved very much thanks to you." Yitzchak Shamir's reaction: "I am shocked and surprised. I knew nothing of this... I think the police should become involved, and... investigate whether the grave act of 'buying power' was committed." (arutzsheva.org Jan 21)
Aliyah Via Binyamin
The Binyamin towns of Ma'aleh Levonah and Shilo, approximately 25 miles north of Jerusalem, are doing their share to promote Aliyah to Israel. The two communities have announced an Aliyah pilot-trip package during the week of Purim, between March 19 and March 26. Families interested in immigrating to Israel will be hosted by the towns, which will provide them with seminars on housing and jobs, take them on tours of Yesha and other areas, and may even reimburse them for the costs of the flights. To qualify for the reimbursement, they must make Aliyah by this summer, and buy a home in either Ma'aleh Levonah or Shilo. (arutzsheva.org Jan 20)
It happened two weeks ago in the northern town of Rosh Pina: HaTzofeh reported that a police sapper was called to the local health clinic to deal with a suspicious package and feared that it might be a bomb. He was forced to blow it up, and later recounted excitedly, "The prayer book inside was turned to crumbs, as were the tefillin covers, but the tefillin themselves [containing ritually-written Biblical passages] were untouched and looked as new as ever." The bag was later found to belong to a boy who had arrived at the clinic with high fever and accidentally left it behind. The boy's father said, "My son received a concrete lesson in the holiness of the tefillin." Following a similar incident reported by Arutz-7 last June, in which tefillin remained whole when a suspicious package was blown up at a bus stop, the sapper told a bystander that he was not surprised, as in his six years on the job, "I've blown up many similar 'suspicious packages' - and not once was the tefillin inside found damaged." (arutzsheva.org Jan 20)
Quote for the Week...
Quote for the Week...
"The attempt to shut this radio station (Arutz 7) some weeks ago was, without doubt, an attempt at silencing legitimate opposition to the government."
- Left-leaning Professor David Newman (Jerusalem Post Jan 26)
JINSA Report: Syria Wins Round One, America Lost
The ceremonial rounds of Israel-Syrian talks are over; the next round postponed. The interregnum may be a good time to assess winners and losers thus far. The Israelis have been quick to say that if there was little progress, there was at least no regression. For them, perhaps, it was a draw.
For Syria, it was a clear win.
Syria won because the Foreign Minister of a bloody criminal dictatorship that supports terrorism, counterfeiting and drug trafficking was treated by the American administration precisely the same way as the Prime Minister of a democratic friend of the United States. Farouk Sharaa received assurances that the U.S. would be a broker between Syrian claims and Israeli claims -- despite the fact that Syria started all of the wars and maintains a formal state of war with Israel. Sharaa announced that the war against Israel might, in fact, be an existential war to scant American protest and he conceded not so much as a handshake to Israel. But no matter. Mr. Sharaa toured a Civil War battlefield. (Perhaps he could reciprocate by taking Americans to the sites of Syrian "battles" in Hama.) He had lunch at Mrs. Albright's private farm. He had dinner with the President of the United States, who promised him aid.
In all the ways that Syria was elevated, America was diminished.
Mr. Clinton is pursuing his interest in yet another signed agreement based on promises of American largesse to a rotten regime. The United States is now the largest provider of aid to North Korea, as that country continues its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Chinese military is invited to meetings in the Pentagon as members of the Falun Gong are arrested en masse in China. We provide millions to the PLO/PA although our government admits that the aid is being diverted to private accounts, and the PA's official media spew anti-Semitism and hatred not only of Israel but of the U.S. as well. Even Egypt, which we call a friendly country, receives American aid as it votes against us in the UN and undermines negotiations between Israel and its other neighbors.
It is one thing for the U.S. to bring parties together to find their way from war to peace -- we sincerely hope the Israelis and the Syrians will find it. But it is entirely another for a regime's nature and behavior to be overlooked by the President of the United States, and the emissary of a country whose behavior is entirely inimical to ours to be treated as if he is a friend.
America has its own interest to pursue in the world, and it is not some chimerical "peace" that the parties need to be bribed to accept. The United States has a moral and practical obligation to support its democratic friends and insist that aggressive and hostile countries change their behavior if they wish to have a constructive relationship with us.
If it was a win for Syria and a draw for Israel, for American honor it was a loss. (Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs Jan 21)
Egypt as a Model By Yosef Goell
Since getting back all the Sinai, Egypt has adamantly rejected normalizing relations between our peoples.
Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Military Intelligence, expressed his dismay and puzzlement on this page last week at the results of a recent poll. It found that 53 percent of Israelis oppose giving up all the Golan in exchange for a complete peace agreement that includes an agreed withdrawal from southern Lebanon and security arrangements.
Saying that he would not be able to make up his mind until he saw the final details of the agreement between Barak, Assad, and, most important of all, Clinton, Gazit asked: "How can you explain the conviction of a decisive majority regarding their positions, at such an early stage of the negotiations? How can you explain the fact that some 69% don't even think they might change their minds when they see the agreement?"
Since I hope Gazit wasn't simply asking a rhetorical question, I would like, as one identified with both majorities in the above poll (whose findings are replicated in other polls), to offer several explanations. Who more than an army general, and especially a former head of Military Intelligence like Gazit, should know that on many, if not most, important issues in life we are forced to make up our minds between bad and worse alternatives in a situation of insufficient information? This is especially true in the case of the Golan and the negotiations with the Syrians in which our leaders, understandably, cannot divulge their "red lines" to us now. There is certainly room for suspicion, however, that Clinton and possibly even Assad do know them.
In the absence of hard facts we are thus left to make intelligent conjectures, for which we have one extremely good precedent: the ice-cold peace with Egypt. After nearly 21 years we can safely say that what we have with Egypt is a nonbelligerency pact that is certainly an improvement over the periodic shooting wars of the previous 30 years, but certainly not peace. Once Egypt got back all of the Sinai, it adamantly refused to honor any of the clauses for gradual normalization of relations between our two peoples, which alone could guarantee that mere military nonbelligerence would grow into a true peace.
What we and our Military Intelligence do know, however, is that because of America's rebuilding and modernization of the Egyptian armed forces, an Egypt that fosters continued hostility to Israel is potentially a much greater danger to us than it was in 1979.
Even at this stage of the negotiations with Syria it is abundantly clear that Assad will settle for not a whit less than what Sadat and Carter squeezed out of Begin in 1979. And it is equally clear that Clinton - with Barak's blessing - is determined to repeat the stupidity of Washington's rebuilding the military capability of a rabidly hostile Syria as part of a "peace package."
It is already clear that what is being negotiated now is the trade-off of the military advantage of an Israeli presence on all of the Golan, which made possible a quieter border than that with Egypt for 26 years, not for a real peace, but for massive American military aid, that will be offset partially by American military aid to Syria. The potential danger to us of such a trade-off with Syria is much greater than in the case of Egypt.
It is crucial that as large a majority of Israelis make up their minds to oppose such a cynical and deadly package already at this stage, even when all the details concerning the exact location of the border with a Syrian Golan are not yet known. Such early popular opposition is an important factor even for the unlikely possibility of winning a radically improved package.
It has been said correctly that Barak will not sign an agreement he knows cannot pass an Israeli referendum. Barak also knows that if he can't get an agreement that will pass such a referendum there is little chance his own premiership will survive.
This is an argument that a fellow politician like Clinton, who has spent a lifetime running in democratic elections, can be expected to understand.
Not only will such a deal not pass, its certain defeat will also totally undermine the only government that has a chance of working out a more balanced deal with the Palestinians. (Jerusalem Post Jan 24)
Turning the U.S. from an Ally into a Judge By: Moshe Arens
For many years now, Israel and the United States have enjoyed a unique relationship - a friendship that has turned into an alliance. The foundation of this relationship are the ideals, principles and values shared by the two countries, so distant geographically and so different in size. Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, quite naturally adopted the norms of democratic governance as exemplified by the United States - civil liberties, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.
Throughout the years of the Cold War, it became clear that common ideals and values also made for common strategic interests, and thus was forged a strategic alliance between the two countries.
Unlike some of the democracies of Western Europe, which in their Middle East policy generally were inclined to place commercial interests before principles, the United States, a country with a strong ideological orientation, has stood by Israel's side whenever it had to face the hostility of surrounding autocratic Arab regimes.
In moving toward an accommodation with its Arab neighbors, Israeli governments have traditionally insisted on direct negotiations.
The common-sense policy reflected an unwillingness to have an agreement imposed on Israel by third parties, and was based on the assumption that an Arab leader's readiness for direct contact with Israeli negotiators was an essential first step in arriving at a peace agreement.
When direct negotiations between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat ran into difficulties in the United States, President Jimmy Carter was prepared to assume the role of "honest broker." No such U.S. mediation was required to arrive at the Oslo agreements, nor for the peace negotiations with Jordan's King Hussein.
Things changed last year at Wye Plantation. And not for the better, as far as Israel was concerned. With Benjamin Netanyahu's approval, the United States moved from being an "honest broker" to playing the role of "facilitator" and eventually to arbitering between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
This role change was inevitably accompanied by a movement of the United States from its natural and traditional position at Israel's side, and generally on Israel's side, to a position somewhere in the middle between Israel and the Palestinians and, on occasion, even right into the arms of Yasser Arafat.
The Wye negotiations that turned the U.S. into an arbiter between conflicting Israeli and Palestinian positions and interpretations resulted in the establishment of close and even intimate relations between the Clinton administration, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. It culminated in Clinton's appearance before the Palestinian National Congress in Gaza and his unprecedented declaration there that the aspirations of the Palestinians had the support of the American people.
It significantly weakened Israel's position in its negotiations with the Palestinians. Now, whenever Israel does not meet Arafat's demands, Arafat is on the plane to Washington to complain to Clinton in the Oval Office.
Are we about to see a replay of this role change for the U.S. in the negotiations with Syria? Is it possible that the president of the U.S. assumes a neutral posture when it comes to negotiations between its ally, Israel, and Syria, a totalitarian state that has turned Lebanon into a puppet state and which is on the U.S. list of countries practicing terrorism? Will reality be distorted to the point of creating a symmetry between Ehud Barak, Israel's democratically elected leader, and Hafez Assad, the cruel dictator in Damascus?
Unfortunately, we have seen this happening in the months since Barak's election. His insistence on involving President Clinton in the negotiations with Syria, and his subsequent agreement to hold the negotiations in the U.S., are turning the U.S. into a mediator between the parties and, inevitably, into an arbiter between Israeli and Syrian positions.
Such a development, although initiated at Barak's insistence and seemingly pleasing to the president of the United States, will not contribute to strengthening the ties between Israel and the U.S.
It is likely to lead to U.S. economic and military assistance to Syria, a country that is the very antithesis of everything that America stands for. This is not the way to assure Israel's interests in the negotiations with Syria (Ha'aretz Jan 25)
Put the Presidency First Jerusalem Post Editorial
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and many other political leaders have voiced similar sentiments: confidence that President Ezer Weizman will know the right thing to do. Weizman's defiant refusal to either go on leave or resign indicates that, like other aspects of the presidency, he does not understand what is expected of him and his office.
For years now, Weizman has run roughshod over what the public rightly believes is the essence of the presidency: to be a unifying factor in a country that is rife with serious divisions. He abused his role as unifier with gratuitous deprecating remarks toward different sectors of society. More seriously, he took sides in bitter public debates, most memorably by calling for a suspension of the peace process under Rabin and by his recent stumping for a potential agreement to return the Golan Heights.
Despite his protestations that it is impossible to "please everyone," the president does know how to act presidential when he wants to. His dogged commitment to visiting wounded soldiers and bereaved families has been exactly what Israelis expect from a president - someone to represent the gratitude and pain of a nation. The hand that Weizman has always had outstretched to Israel's Arab community and other minorities also represents the best of what his largely ceremonial office could be. Yet the same "common touch" that has endeared the president to so many also seems to be the source of a terrible blindness. Being popular and "one with the people" does not carry with it the right to impose the weight of the presidency in controversial national debates. A president who starts confusing himself with the nation stops being a president.
The confusion of the personal and the national was sadly evident in the embarrassing "we ate a little, we drank a little" eulogy of Yitzhak Rabin, when the people badly needed to fathom a terrible national loss. The no-longer-endearing lack of personal and political restraint is a further manifestation of such personal indulgence. Now the president has admitted to taking large cash gifts from a wealthy benefactor. Only the police investigation can determine whether Weizman reciprocated the continuous flow of money from Edouard Seroussi with political favors. Regardless of the outcome of the criminal investigation, even the most lowly Knesset member should understand that no large gift can be cleansed of the taint of bribery, regardless of the prominence of the lawyer who may advise otherwise. In essence, the idea that it could have been appropriate for an MK or minister to accept large sums of money shows that, in Weizman's mind, the personal and national were not only confused, but reversed. In this concept, the norms that would apply to a simple government clerk do not apply to a scion of Israeli society, the closest thing Israel has to an aristocracy. The norms and laws that are supposed to guide and serve the rest of us, Weizman seems to believe, need not apply to a select few.
All of this might have been forgiven, however, if Weizman had not taken the process of personal-national reversal to its ultimate conclusion - the refusal to relinquish the presidency for personal reasons. Even if the police investigation and the attorney-general determine that no laws were broken, the clearing of Weizman will not have cleared his presidency. Perhaps if Weizman had gone on leave, been cleared of criminality, or explained himself fully to the public - including some expression of regret for mistakes that he made - there might have been a willingness to overlook the serious violation of public norms. Now, even if he is cleared, the inescapable perception is that Weizman's only standard of behavior is a lack of criminality, thereby tainting the presidency as long as he holds that office, if not beyond. It is not possible to interpret Weizman's refusal to resign as based upon what is best for the presidency, rather than on what is best for his personal effort to clear himself.
The right to be considered legally innocent until proven guilty is not equivalent to the right to hold on to the presidency with all one's might. The presidency, of all offices, is not about the personal rights of its occupant, but the rights of the people that occupant represents. As an officer with long and courageous service to the nation, one might expect that Weizman would understand the difference between serving in an office and acting as if the office must serve him. Only by stepping down, in order to set the presidency above himself, can he begin to restore the dignity of the office and his own dignity as well. (Jerusalem Post Jan 25)
The Veterans Fumble like Rookies By Dov S. Zakheim
The Americans' paper came too soon; now Assad is stuck in a box he must escape somehow.
What were they possibly thinking? How could a veteran "peace team," people who have been immersed in the arcana of Middle East negotiations for a decade, have assumed that they would produce a draft peace agreement that would not leak?
With more than 60 Israeli negotiators and about half as many from Syria, did the Americans really believe that a highly charged document like the one they produced would not air in the media within a week?
There will still be a deal between Israel and Syria. Not so much because Ehud Barak desperately needs one. As he has said, he can wait until the Syrians figure out what to do next. It is Hafez Assad who needs the deal. It is he whose economy is a wreck, whose military is obsolescent, and whose personal life cannot be much better. He has lost his favorite son, the son he had groomed to take his place. His son-in-law and another son have come to blows. Bashar, his currently designated successor, is universally seen as "not yet ready for prime time." And Assad's own health seems to be deteriorating, to a far more serious degree than in the past. Visitors who found him alert and sharp as recently as a year ago now find him distracted. His troubles are enough to distract him; perhaps they are affecting his health as well. He needs a victory, any victory, to go to the grave with his pride intact and to give his son a real chance to remain in power. He needs the Golan, far more desperately than Barak needs the peace.
Everyone knows Assad is a cautious, stubborn man. Some argue he is the shrewdest manipulator in the Middle East. But time may be passing him by; his shrewdness may have been more relevant to another age.
His stonewalling over the need for an up-front Israeli commitment may be due to his being rooted in a bygone era. Or it may be his way of showing those around him why it would be best to compromise to get 99 percent of what he, and his people, want. In any event, it was nothing short of folly for the American side to produce a paper that offered no solution to Assad's central need - the return of the Golan - but more than implied he was prepared to give ground on other issues, however trivial many of those "concessions" were.
Assad now finds himself stuck in a box he must somehow escape.
Barak needs time too. He has little to show for his efforts except a surly, hostile interlocutor who can hardly be described as a negotiating partner. Moreover, he faces real opposition from across the spectrum of Israeli society.
Ironically, he seems to have united Israel: The huge demonstration in Kikar Rabin against returning the Golan had haredim and secular Jews standing shoulder to shoulder. It is in the prime minister's interest that everyone take a breather, that emotions subside before the next round of talks.
The "peace team" should also take a breather. Its eagerness to leave a legacy - its term is more than likely to end with that of President Clinton - is perhaps understandable. But it is clearly counterproductive.
Once again, the "team" has fumbled. It was far too soon to produce anything on paper. Nor should anything more appear on paper until the gap on the major issues - land, water, and security - has begun to close.
Hopefully, America's negotiators will at last have learned a lesson from a mistake more characteristic of rookies than of 10-year veterans.
The writer is CEO of SPC International Corporation, Arlington, Virginia, and former US deputy undersecretary of defense (Jerusalem Post Jan 23)
A Copernican View By Daniel Pipes
Why, after eight years of on-and-off talks, has no agreement been signed by Syria and Israel? In contrast, the peace treaty with Jordan was dispatched in a few months. Even the Palestinian track has produced six agreements in as many years.
There are two opposite ways to explain this state of affairs. The optimistic explanation is that Assad has made a strategic decision for peace with Israel but can't quite get there. Moshe Maoz, the Hebrew University's specialist on Syria, argues that already in 1988 Assad had resolved "to reach a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict" - political, that is, not military. Itamar Rabinovich, Tel Aviv University's specialist on Syria and Israel's chief negotiator with Syria in the years 1992-96, agrees. He holds that throughout this time Assad wanted agreements with Israel and that the two states reached "the brink of peace."
But if Assad decided more than a decade ago to reach a political settlement with Israel, why has he nothing to show for it? Maoz explains that "Assad was taken aback by the Oslo accord," which harmed his bargaining position.
Rabinovich sees Assad conducting himself "as if time were no constraint" and wasting a precious opportunity. Others account for the lack of progress by pointing to the Syrian despot's misunderstanding of Israeli democracy, his inability to swallow his pride as an Arab nationalist, or his age and infirmity.
In the end, though, optimists can't account for Assad's actions and sometimes acknowledge that. Rabinovich's account of the 1992-96 negotiations is peppered with phrases like "We were deeply puzzled," "It is difficult to understand Assad's conduct," and "Many of Assad's decisions during this period have yet to be fully explained."
Then there is the pessimistic explanation. It assumes that Assad has not reconciled himself to ending the conflict with Israel, that he views the negotiations as merely tactical moves to protect his country at a moment of
weakness. In this reading, Assad's agreement to talk with his Israeli enemy does not imply anything more than that. Pessimists easily account for the lack of progress in more than eight years: Assad has no intention of reaching an agreement with Israel. It's not that he's too slow or ignorant or old but that he's using the negotiations for a specific purpose: to improve his position vis--å-vis the West. (How often have American secretaries of state visited Baghdad or Teheran in recent years?)
Assuming that Assad has no intention of signing an agreement sweeps away the puzzlements about his behavior and shows how his supposed miscalculations are actually canny decisions.
These differences in analysis keep popping up. When, last week, Damascus abruptly announced it would return to the bargaining table only if Israel agreed in advance to grant its most major demand (about moving the border back to where it was on June 4, 1967), the optimists found new excuses.
The regime is displaying its toughness to the Syrian public. The document leaked to Ha'aretz put Assad's nose out of joint. The presence of Yasser Arafat in Washington prompted him to keep his foreign minister home.
But these are unconvincing trivialities. It makes far more sense to see the latest Syrian demand as another signal that Assad has no intention of reaching a deal with the Israelis. This was confirmed further by the brusque and even insulting way the Syrian demands were made.
Let's consider a parallel from science: For millennia, people assumed the earth was stationary and that the sun moved around it. As they learned more about the heavens, this explanation became ever-more difficult to reconcile with observed movements of the solar system. To account for the apparent loops that planets were making, astronomers had to devise intricate explanations.
Then, in one fell swoop, Nicholas Copernicus eliminated this problem. By positing the earth in orbit around the sun, he wiped away all the complexities. Simplicity and elegance have reigned since.
It's time for a Copernican revolution with regard to Syria. Why cling to the optimists' convoluted and unconvincing explanations when the pessimists can account so simply for what's happening?
The writer is the director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and the author of three books on Syria. (Jerusalem Post Jan 25)