Going for the Golan

Print edition : February 05, 2000

It would appear that some headway has been made in the Israel-Syria talks on the Golan Heights, although a number of differences persist.

MOSHE DAYAN, then Israel's Defence Minister, had a change of heart in the small hours of June 9, 1967. Till then the lone hold-out in the Israeli Cabinet against an attack on Syria, Dayan suddenly called up his Commander in the north, General David Elaza r, and ordered him to take the Golan plateau. Analysts are still unsure whether the enigmatic Dayan had pulled off a masterly deception or whether he had finally made the choice between the risk of international opprobrium and the Israeli desire to posse ss the Golan. Ehud Barak, Israel's current Prime Minister and like Dayan a former General, appears to be following the same enigmatic route, albeit from the opposite point of origin.

Dayan never claimed that he stayed on the defensive on the Syrian front only till his army had broken the Egyptians and Jordanians and was thus free to concentrate in the north. He did admit in his autobiography that the unexpectedly swift collapse of th e Egyptian and Jordanian armies provided the opportunity for a strike against Syria before a United Nations-mandated ceasefire became operational. Since Dayan also notes that he feared the Soviet Union would pounce on Israel if it attacked Syria, some Is raeli analysts think that the Defence Minister might have been merely trying to deceive the world with a show of restraint till the opportunity arose.

What was more interesting were the comments that Dayan made in a subsequent interview that the decision to attack the Golan was made under a deal of political pressure from residents of Israel's Upper Galilee area. These residents apparently told the Cab inet that life had become intolerable because of artillery shelling from the Syrian side. In his interview Dayan was to say that the Syrians had in 80 per cent of the cases merely retaliated to Israeli provocations. It was lust for the green slopes of th e Golan and its rich water rather than the Syrian shelling that drove the Upper Galilee residents and led them to blackmail the government politically. All these points have been subsequently disputed, and since Dayan never revealed what exactly led him to change his mind, this will remain a grey area.

THE same mix of motives is operational 33 years down the road after Israel and Syria restarted negotiations in December 1999. Israel keeps playing up the security aspect and insists on guarantees in this regard before it will agree to withdraw from the G olan. At the same time, it is extremely anxious about the control and management of the water resources. Barak has already made one effort to persuade Syria to allow Israeli settlers on the Golan to remain even beyond the plateau. That was quickly shot d own but there are indications that more efforts on these lines will be made. These settlers, unlike those in the Palestinian territories, initially did not go up onto the plateau on the basis of any religio-historic motives. They now have flourishing vin eyards and industries there and the plateau is a more comfortable place to stay than the coastal plains to which the settlers might have to return.

Neither of these concerns, over security or water, entitles Israel to keep the Golan. As Syria's Foreign Minister Farooq al Sharaa pointed out in his opening remarks when the negotiations resumed, there are thousands of Syrians displaced from the Golan w ho now languish in Damascus as refugees. Israel may have the right to argue that the 1923 border linemarked by the French and British when they each appropriated provinces of the dissolved Turkish empire ought to be taken as the base when the internation al border is finally demarcated. But even if this line were to be taken as the true one, it would leave all of the Golan under Syrian sovereignty. In the war that broke out upon the formation of Israel in 1948 the Syrian forces made some advances in this sector, capturing the forward slopes of the Golan right down to a part of the Galilee sea shoreline. This was the border line till June 4, 1967, and Syria is firm that it will settle for nothing less than the restoration of this line.

Even Israeli reports, though somewhat foggy on the issue, seem to indicate clearly that Yitzhak Rabin had promised an Israeli withdrawal to the west and south of the June 4, 1967 lines in the course of the negotiations held between 1992 and 1996. The Syr ian representatives at those talks have claimed that an Israeli promise to withdraw beyond the 1967 line was "deposited" with the U.S. mediators. The document handed over by Rabin's government to the U.S. might have been a "declaration of intent" or "a c onditional promise" or an indicator of how far they would go if their demands were also met. But all said and done, the Rabin government did appear to have given a promise that the 1967 line would be treated as the border if a final agreement was reached after it was also satisfied about its demands.

The Rabin government's promise might not have been very relevant, though it would still have created problems if the government of Benjamin Netanyahu had not made a similar promise. During secret talks conducted through a businessman friend, Netanyahu re portedly handed over a letter to the Syrians strongly implying a withdrawal beyond the 1967 line, though the exact words were not used. This offer was scuttled by Ariel Sharon when he became Foreign Minister in the Netanyahu Cabinet. But even the Netanya hu letter might not have mattered if, as reported by Yehodiot Ahornot, Barak himself had not made a similar promise in an exchange with U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999.

It was apparently this secret promise from Barak which provided Clinton with the substance to induce Syrian President Hafez al Assad to assent to a resumption of talks. Clinton finessed the face-off between the two sides by announcing publicly that the t wo sides had agreed to resume the negotiations "from the point they were left off in 1996". Such a formulation left vague the correct situation but allowed the Israelis to return to the negotiations saying that they had not agreed to the 1967 line and at the same time it allowed the Syrians to claim that Tel Aviv had indeed done so. The U.S. could have clarified the situation but it could only have done so at the cost of annoying one of the principals, and jeopardising the talks in the process.

Although Israel had "annexed" the Golan Heights by an Act of Parliament in the 1980s, it has been recognised by all the political parties there that there would be no peace with Syria unless there was a withdrawal "on" if not "from" the Golan. (Since Syr ia has never been willing to accept anything short of a full withdrawal, any Israeli presence to retain some presence "on" at least a part of the Golan would probably have been still-born.) But if the secret messages from three Prime Ministers showed any thing, it was a realistic appraisal that they would have to quit the plateau. In return for such a withdrawal, Israel has been demanding certain security arrangements and full normalisation of relations. The demand for normalisation is based on the presu mption that the establishment of full diplomatic, economic and commercial ties and the free movement of people and goods are by themselves the best guarantees of security.

President Bill Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (left) and Syrian Foreign Minister Farooq al Sharaa (right) at Shepherdstown on January 7, in the presence of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel Berg er.-AP PHOTO/WHITE HOUSE PHOTO

Barak met with Syria's Foreign Minister, in the presence of Clinton and his officials, in the U.S. in mid-December. The two West Asian leaders then returned for more intensive negotiations at Sheperdstown, West Virginia, from January 3 to 12. Four commit tees were set up to discuss the issues of borders, normalisation, security arrangements and water. Sticking to their negotiating position that they would settle the border question only after the security and normalisation aspects were rounded off, Israe l ensured that the security and normalisation committees would meet before the border committee. Syria clawed its way back into the negotiations and the border committee also began its discussions within a couple of days.

When the full discussions got under way, it became clear that it was going to be the "so near yet so far" kind of situation which had been expected. Progress in any one of the committees could not so outpace the others as to create the impression that th e demands of one side or the other were being satisfied first. At length, Clinton apparently felt that he needed to apply a closure of some limited degree by setting out on paper how far and on what issues the two sides were in agreement or close to it a nd where they were not. This was supposed to be an informal "working document" on which both sides were invited to record their divergences on the points set out.

Despite the fact that a "media blackout" had been imposed, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz managed to publish a copy of this working paper which must be considered authentic since no one has questioned it yet. In form this document was a draft agree ment with preamble and nine articles. Both Syria and Israel had appended their differences as required. For example, in dealing with the border the document states: "2. The permanent, secure and recognised international boundary between Israel and Syria is the boundary set forth in Article II below. The location of the boundary has been commonly agreed (Syrian position: and is based on the June 4, 1967 line) (Israeli position: taking into account security and other vital interests of the Parties as well as legal considerations of both sides). Israel will (S: withdraw) (I: relocate) all its armed forces (S: and civilians) behind this boundary in accordance with Annex - of this Treaty. (S: Thereafter, each Party will exercise its full sovereignty on its side of the international boundary, including as agreed in this Treaty)."

Despite the number of differences recorded, the document showed that either some headway had been made in the negotiations or either side had started with a slightly softer approach than suggested by their public postures. For instance, Israel had droppe d any specific reference to the 1923 line, though the format used in recording their position vis-a-vis this point ("taking into account security and other vital interests of the parties as well as legal considerations of both sides") did not prec lude its being raised. On their part, the Syrians had apparently acceded to the Israeli demand that there must be a monitoring station atop Mount Hermon (abutting the Golan plateau), to observe any hostile movements from within Syrian territory even afte r a final agreement is reached. They, however, differed from Israel in that they wanted the post to be manned by U.S. and French personnel while Israel insisted that there must be an effective Israeli presence at this post.

There were other differences, mainly those relating to modalities rather than substance, in respect of other security arrangements, especially the size of demilitarised zones. But it did not appear that these differences would make for insurmountable obs tacles if other issues were settled. Neither side had any divergent views to offer on Clinton's formulation of what would be required in a state of normal relations between them. For instance, Syria, the far weaker economy, did not protest at the documen t's provisions for the free movement of goods and people. Even in respect of water the Syrians appear to have conceded that although they would control the Baniyas springs and other sources of the Jordan river (if and when they regained possession of the Golan) Israel would still have a say in the management of these water resources.

SO, as it has always been, the whole affair boils down to the question of the border. There is no way Syria is going to agree to a border line that runs along the Golan escarpment or one fairly high up the forward slope of the plateau. If the 1967 line i s taken as the base, it provides some scope for mutual adjustments since it was not a recognised or demarcated line. It was merely a line drawn on armistice maps that set out the military posts of the respective sides, minefields and demilitarised zones. Compromises are at least feasible when this line, or something based on it, is marked out on the ground. According to Haaretz, Barak has already got his military to map out where the 1967 line ran.

Taking into consideration the various developments during the negotiations and outside of it, the reason for Israel's refusal to acknowledge its acceptance of the 1967 line is not very clear. Barak has promised his people that he would sign a peace deal with Syria only if they endorse it in a referendum. Currently those opposed to a withdrawal from the Golan have the political momentum. Israeli analysts, giving the benefit of the doubt to Barak, feel that he has not got enough on security and normalisat ion for him to be able to convince his people that the return of the Golan is worthwhile.

The record suggests that the Israelis are is poised to get quite a deal already and that they will probably be very close to full satisfaction if they make the Syrians happy on the border question. Then again, Barak is perhaps waiting for these facts to sink in in the minds of his public before he makes any further move. Meanwhile, Syria called for an indefinite postponement of the third round, scheduled for January 19, till Israel provided a written promise that it would indeed withdraw behind the 1967 line.

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