Syrian Track Abruptly Revived, But The Chill Remains

After a flurry of activity since being so abruptly resurrected six weeks ago, the Israel-Syria peace track is just as suddenly back on ice, as the Syrians have made it known they will not return to the negotiations until Israel commits in writing to a full withdraw from the Golan. The high-level talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara are unlikely to resume for several weeks, and while the US says the gaps are "bridgeable," it appears that the process actually may be in worse shape now than when it was dramatically revived on December 8th.

DIPLOMATIC JOLT: US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confronted a tough assignment on her Mideast trip in early December, as the Palestinians threatened paralysis in Oslo’s final-status talks. But first, she paid a courtesy call on ailing Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in Damascus, to test his willingness to resume dormant talks with Israel over the Golan. In public, Albright’s team played down expectations of progress, but privately they knew a breakthrough was in the works.

Exploiting Barak’s election last May, US President Bill Clinton had quietly made no less than 30 telephone calls to Jerusalem and Damascus last summer to try to revive talks that broke off in early 1996. Sensing progress, Clinton conveyed to Assad a set of probing questions on certain non-territorial aspects of peace with Israel and awaited answers. A number of foreign luminaries descended on the Syrian capital to push for quick responses, and Barak continued to stroke Assad’s ego profusely. Yet Syria’s slowness remained a mystery.

But after three hours of talks with Assad on December 7, Albright phoned Clinton to report headway. Addressing the media, an upbeat, but tight-lipped Albright would only refer to "sufficient clarifications" from Assad. When pressed for details, she quipped, "Discussions about negotiations are very much like mushrooms. They do much better when they are not in the light."

Then, suddenly, the Israel-Syria peace track was jarred awake from its three-and-a-half year slumber when Clinton announced at the White House the next day that Barak and Shara had agreed to resume talks in Washington the following week "from the point that they have stopped." Clinton refused to elaborate upon the agreed terms for re-launching talks, saying only, "I think it is clear that both parties have sufficient confidence that their needs can be met in the negotiations."

With details of the breakthrough closely guarded, many speculated Barak had secretly caved in to Assad’s stiff precondition for returning to the peace table - an Israeli commitment to return to the June 4, 1967 line. Barak, who had been predicting talks would resume "soon," adamantly denied any such capitulation. He again praised Assad, spoke of "painful compromises" needed to achieve peace, and stressed any deal he makes with Syria would enhance Israel’s security.

Not all Israelis were comforted by Barak’s disclaimers. Perhaps the ones most "seized" by the moment were the 18,000 Israelis living on the Golan, as many startled residents spoke of "sleepless nights," but took heart that they could arouse supporters nationwide to defeat a referendum on a Syrian deal, as promised by Barak. Although most were born into the Labor movement and even voted for Barak, they jumped-started their "Peace with the Golan" campaign hoping to outrun the bulldozer of peace. Already, a quiet alliance had been made with the YESHA Council to block the uprooting of their respective communities, a move they had avoided in the past.

With no one willing to explain the vague formulation that "talks would resume at the point where they left off," the next big ponderable was: "Why now?" After years of indecision, the aging Assad appears ready to risk a "cold peace" with Jerusalem for an "honorable" return of the Golan. He aims to solidify his minority Alawite regime and a new place for Syria in the region before his son, British-educated ophthalmologist Bashar Assad, assumes power. Many also credit Barak’s threat to unilaterally withdraw from the south Lebanon security zone with drawing Assad back to the talks at this time. Assad also is pressed to rescue Syria’s failing economy, and indeed, closer ties with Washington seems to be his prime target.

For Barak, the breakthrough helps him save face on his pledge of a Lebanon withdrawal by July, which he can now link to progress in the Syrian talks. He foresees a long list of other benefits in making peace with Damascus, but - like Assad - he feels the timing is right primarily due to the personal involvement of Clinton. Both seek to take advantage of Clinton’s keen desire to rescue his marred presidential legacy with a showcase Mideast peace deal in his little time left in office.

FROSTY RELAUNCH: Before they met in the first round of renewed talks, both Barak and Shara sounded optimistic a peace treaty could be concluded within months. This again fueled Israeli fears a deal already was cooked in secret largely on Syria’s terms. Barak defended his actions before the Cabinet and Knesset, claiming it would take a "microscope" to distinguish the differences between his positions from his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, on returning the Golan. Netanyahu shot back: "Assad asked me at what distance I saw the border and I answered ‘miles (east of the June 4 line).’" Barak stressed over and over - with US backing - that he had made no "border" commitments in advance of the talks.

After a stormy debate, the Knesset gave a lukewarm endorsement to Barak’s statement on the revived talks, by a margin of 47 to 31, with 24 abstentions. In a sign of a growing rift in his 68-member government, 26 coalition MKs abstained or voted against Barak. Other abstentions in the political middle spelled more trouble, as the anti-haredi Shinui faction, for example, was too divided to commit one way or the other. The Likud called the Knesset vote the beginning of the end of the coalition, as any decision to relinquish sovereign territory requires approval by an absolute majority of 61 MKs.

Leaving behind a nation suddenly torn apart by his latest peace move, Barak arrived in Washington for the highest level Israel-Syria talks ever, claiming it carried an implicit Syrian recognition of Israel at long last. The Syrians, on the other hand, vowed to regain "every last grain" of sand on the Golan, and boasted the meetings were taking place on terms dictated by Damascus. Under Clinton’s guidance, the initial round aimed at reaching agreement on how to proceed on the four-part agenda of borders, normalization, security arrangements and water.

The sudden arousal of the lethargic Syrian track had left the American hosts at the historic Washington summit scrambling to arrange an opening ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. While most wondered aloud whether Shara would shake hands with Barak, no one was quite prepared for Shara’s sharp rhetoric at the chilly morning event. Although Clinton and Barak delivered brief upbeat remarks, Shara used the occasion to launch into a belligerent list of grievances, portraying Syria as a victim of Israeli aggression and Western indifference. The prepared speech shocked the US and Israeli teams, although both later emphasized the atmosphere in the actual negotiations quickly warmed. The low expectations of Shara were well-placed, as the top Syrian diplomat had not darkened a room with Israelis since the 1991 Madrid conference, where he tried to disgrace then-Israeli premier Yitzhak Shamir by holding up a British Mandate-era "wanted" photo of him in front of a world-wide audience. Other than putting a good face on the combative Syrian tone, most officials involved in the talks maintained their "vow of silence."

"We are witnessing a new beginning in the effort to achieve a comprehensive peace. We can truly set our sight on a new and different Middle East," Clinton said as he closed the books on the 48-hour summit and announced a second round in early January. But Barak surely grimaced at the damage Shara had done to his hopes of marketing a Golan give-away to an increasingly skeptical Israeli citizenry. Many Israelis watching back home indeed were disappointed by Shara’s rudeness, with Likud leader Ariel Sharon calling it a "national humiliation."

One clear development in the veiled talks was the depth of US involvement, as both sides seemed comfortable having Americans in the room at all times. A key reason is Syria’s quest to be removed from the US State Department’s list of states which sponsor terrorism, a bar to receiving American financial and military assistance. But the US, backing up Israeli and Turkish demands, said they expected Syria first to rein in terrorist groups like Hizb’Allah. Syria seemed to grasp the message, at least temporarily, restraining the radical Islamic militia from retaliating after some 20 Lebanese schoolchildren were wounded by stray mortar fire from the South Lebanese Army as the talks ended.

COALITION GAMES: Returning to Jerusalem, Barak cautioned that a failed referendum would leave Israel with "no way out" of a potentially broad and lethal confrontation with the Arab/Islamic world. Riled Golan residents and political opponents charged him with using "scare tactics." The Israeli premier knew he faced a tough campaign marketing, as opinion polls indicated less than half the population supports withdrawing from the Golan.

To aid the public relations effort, Labor leaders decided to sit arch-doves like Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres on the sidelines. Barak also claimed victory in the stand-off with Assad over the agenda for further talks, reporting the parties had agreed to first discuss security arrangements and normalization. Foreign Minister David Levy added that he asked Syria for a set of confidence-building measures, including the return of the body of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy hanged in Damascus in 1965, and information about three IDF soldiers missing since a 1982 tank battle in Lebanon and IAF navigator Ron Arad, missing since 1986.

Before ever getting to a referendum or even the next round of talks, Barak’s government had to survive a tough end-of-year budget battle that saw Shas exploiting its role as his most indispensable coalition partner to wrest funding for its debt-ridden school system. Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef promised a halachic ruling soon that will dictate how the party votes on a Syria-Israel peace agreement in the Knesset. Yosef made a religious ruling in favor of the "land-for-peace" formula in the biblical heartland of Judea/Samaria years before, but he is taking his time before ruling on the Golan issue. Pro-peace advocates charge it is just a ruse to extract government funds.

Shas took Barak to the brink over the budget, delivering its resignation after learning Finance Minister Avraham Shohat tried to bypass them and create a safety net for the budget by doling out NIS 260 million to fellow Orthodox parties NRP and United Torah Judaism. Barak pleaded for more time and finally wilted, after holding out for months, paying Shas over NIS 600 million for its 17 votes. The turmoil worried Clinton so much, he phoned Barak to ask for an update. With the budget already close to passing, Barak clearly meant the payoff to shore up his government and his peace moves with Syria. In doing so, Barak risked his self-proclaimed reputation as a leader who does not give in to ultimatums, and then swallowed even harder with a rare pilgrimage to Yosef’s home just before talks resumed.

NO ONE BLINKS: Still blanketed by a media blackout - both teams gave up their cell phones to reduce the risk of leaks to the press - the second round convened January 3rd at a secluded conference center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, some 75 miles northwest of Washington, a venue intended to allow Clinton quick access by helicopter. Barak and Shara again led their respective delegations, now expanded in expectation of detailed talks on substantive issues.

Clinton sought to avoid the mistakes made at the opening of December’s summit, deciding to stroll with Barak and Shara across a foot-bridge over a wooded ravine, with no one addressing the press. Photos of the staged moment were carried on the front pages of Syrian newspapers, breaking the taboo against picturing Barak and Shara together at talks. But as soon as they walked inside, a lingering dispute over the agenda surfaced that continues to plague the talks.

The quarrel involves a matter of principle for both sides - who will be the first to show their hand in the high-stakes game over the strategic Golan plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Barak wanted to hear details on the depth of peace Syria was offering before discussing the border issue. Assad, on the other hand, instructed Shara to insist Barak first commit to a full withdrawal before discussing the contents of peace. American officials speculated the agenda impasse was intended for domestic consumption in Syria and Israel, as both governments had an interest in showing they were fighting hard over every detail. To many Israelis as well, the Shepherdstown talks were just a show, with the two sides simply bickering over the 1923 international border or the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines.

Nonetheless, with the summit noticeably on the rocks, a determined Clinton commuted to the sequestered talks 5 times in 7 days to try to forge a detour around the pivotal drama over which side would blink first. As the trying week came to a close, Clinton managed to bring the parties together around a secret, seven-page US "working document" outlining their areas of agreement and discord - considered the embryo of a future peace treaty. The "borders" committee also held its first meeting, since the Syrians were anxious about returning to Damascus without any discussions yet on the land component of a peace deal.

As the talks recessed, London’s Al-Hayat Arab newspaper was the first to lay claims to inside knowledge on the contents of the US-drafted document, saying it opens with a general statement that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," a maxim adopted specifically for the Israel-Syria track. But the US cautioned that "it differs in major and substantial ways" with the actual text.

A HANDY LEAK: Barak returned home only to confront surging popular opposition to his efforts, as Golan residents organized what many described as the largest rally in the nation’s history in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. The massive, peaceful crowd - estimated at somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 - drew from all across the political spectrum, underlining the Golan’s wide appeal beyond its prime importance as a military asset. The rally carried a strong message focused on the humanitarian aspect of dislodging Israelis on the Golan, and reinforced recent polls indicating a substantial shift towards retaining the Golan.

A primary reason for the recent swing in opinion likely stems simply from the refusal of Shara to shake hands with Barak, despite plenty of opportunities and reasons to do so. In one sense, the Israeli referendum would be Assad’s first true democratic test, albeit by a foreign electorate, and he is failing miserably to court Israeli voters. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat set a high standard, boldly coming to Jerusalem to pursue peace. Jordan’s King Hussein also did much to win Israeli hearts, including a passionate appeal for forgiveness from the parents of seven schoolgirls shot dead by a Jordanian soldier. In comparison, Assad appears a stubborn relic of the past.

Also at the heart of pro-Golan sentiment is a realization Syria is now too weak to attack. The Golan front has been quiet since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and an assessment of the military balance between the two armies by the left-leaning Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies has just concluded Assad does not have a "war option" at present. Although the authors of the study - largely pro-peace, former IDF commanders - released their findings to notify Barak the time is right to secure a good deal, it may have backfired. The study confirmed the Syrian air force is in poor shape, and Syria’s only real chance of inflicting damage is through the use of Scud missiles tipped with chemical warheads; such an attack would be met with all-out war.

Three-time defense minister Moshe Arens and other leading security analysts have taken the line that Syria would be a threat only after a peace treaty, when it would have access to American military aid. They and others also have expressed widely-held reservations about Barak’s plans to make Israel even more dependent on US security guarantees and arms supplies - costing somewhere between $17-65 billion and essentially turning the country into a banana republic.

Also of note, the large Russian immigrant bloc is considered a key swing vote Barak needs in a Golan referendum, but 75% now oppose ceding the Heights. "Russians find the idea of giving up land incomprehensible," one prominent immigrant said, adding "the fact that Syria was a staunch ally of the Soviet state doesn’t help Barak’s cause."

For their part, the Syrians have trouble with the concept of seeking public approval for anything, and consider Barak’s referendum woes a problem of his own making. But the Clinton Administration vowed not to pressure Israelis into a deal with Syria against their interests.

Thinking he had only a week in the country to chip away at the slumping polls, Barak completely shed the US-imposed media blackout in a series of scripted press forays. Following a concise set of talking points in each appearance, Barak diminished the importance of Shara’s frosty manners and claimed to have detected "cracks" in rigid Syrian positions.

Then, the Israel daily Ha’aretz published what it claimed was an accurate version of the confidential US "working document." Although denying responsibility for the leak, Barak authenticated the document and used it as a convenient sword and shield to shoot down persistent charges he had already surrendered the whole Golan. The Ha’aretz revelations indeed showed gaps still exist between the parties on the border issue, and also disclosed Barak was asking the Syrians to consider allowing Israelis to remain on the Golan after an IDF pullback - a proposal viewed by many as an obvious "non-starter" meant only to divide the pro-Golan camp in Israel.

The document, which impeached the earlier version leaked by Syria to Al-Hayat, embarrassed the Assad regime, undermining his reputation as a clever negotiator and pan-Arab purist. Syria threatened a "no-show" at the third round of talks set for January 19 back in the US, mounted attacks on Barak in the government-controlled press, and published a laundry list of new negotiating positions in Syrian and Lebanese dailies. Surprised Israeli and US officials tried to appear unfazed by the disturbing news of an indefinite suspension of the peace track they had worked so hard to resurrect, but privately realized they may have actually lost ground. Barak assured, "If [Assad] needs some more time, we respect that... and we will be there when he is ready."

To restore his credibility (or rather "honor") in front of his people and the Arab world, Assad is demanding the US furnish a written Israeli guarantee of full withdrawal before returning to the peace table - whereas before he appeared willing to accept a discreet nod in the affirmative. Assad also may sense Barak is not as strong at home as his confidence belies, and may be testing the Israeli leaders patience and depth of public support.

But the abrupt turn of events has unmasked significant differences in positions over the breadth of demilitarized zones, early warning stations, water arrangements, the levels and timing of normalization, restraining violence by "third parties" (Hizb’Allah, etc.), trade ties, ending boycotts, incitement, anti-Semitism and human rights violations, and other issues. In addition, Barak appears to have prompted Syria to introduce modifications to the US draft treaty concerning Palestinian refugees and Israeli nuclear disarmament - surely a setback he did not intend.

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