No more king of the mountain?
By Aluf Benn
Haaretz/ 27/02/09

U.S. President Barack Obama wants to create a new order in the Middle East, one based on diplomacy and dialogue, not on boycotts and bombs. Israel wants to shatter the threatening "axis of evil," which is headquartered in Iran and has branches in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and is opposed to withdrawal from the territories. Syria wants to improve its relations with the United States and strengthen its control of Lebanon, without bowing to Israel.

Is there a formula that can satisfy Israel, Syria and Obama's United States? Is there any point in trying to move ahead on the Syrian track, after prolonged stagnation and all the disappointments and failures?

Close associates of prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu are tossing around the idea of an interim agreement between Israel and Syria, in which the two countries would declare a "state of non-belligerence" in return for an Israeli withdrawal from a small part of the Golan Heights.

On the eve of the election, while visiting the Golan and planting a tree for Tu Bishvat (Hebrew Arbor Day), Netanyahu declared that, "Gamla will not fall again" and "the Golan will remain in our hands." According to him, "For 35 years this has been the quietest border we have because we are on the Golan, not below it." On other occasions, he has declared that withdrawal from the Heights would turn it into "an Iranian base." He sees the indirect negotiations Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conducted with the Syrians as having offered concessions without recompense, as a useless move that served only to extricate Syrian President Bashar Assad from international isolation. An agreement that would include only a limited withdrawal, however, in which Israel would "remain on the Golan," does not contradict Netanyahu's principles.

All efforts to achieve peace between Syria and Israel since the 1991 Madrid peace conference have been based on the same formula: Israeli withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights in return for peace, normalization of relations, and security arrangements that would distance the Syrian army from the border and would afford Israel early-warning intelligence.

That formula seemed simple, in comparison with the complex negotiations with the Palestinians. In the Syrian track, there is no doubt that "there is a partner," one that is capable of making and following up on decisions. Furthermore, there are no fraught emotional and religious issues with the Golan, unlike the situation with the Palestinians, with thorny issues such as Jerusalem, the refugees and the Jewish settlements that have been built on biblical sites in the West Bank. The strategic benefit of the accommodation with Syria also seemed obvious: Shifting that country from the "resistance camp" into the group of moderate nations in the region would once and for all obviate the danger of "the big war" between Israel and its neighbors, and would also afford Syria an opportunity for modernization and economic development.

Nevertheless, all efforts to achieve a settlement have come to naught. Six Israeli prime ministers have negotiated directly or indirectly with Syrian presidents Hafez Assad and his son Bashar: Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Olmert. Only prime minister Ariel Sharon did not want to enter into talks. With the exception of Shamir, all agreed in principle to withdrawal from the Golan; indeed, in Barak's day, the dispute over the border boiled down to a 200-meter-wide strip. But the gap was never closed.

The common denominator of all the failed attempts was that both sides hesitated to take the final step that would burst through the psychological barriers, but also put them in great political danger. Israel refused to withdraw to the line that the Syrians demanded, which would have given them control of the northeastern shore of Lake Kinneret. Damascus refused normalization measures and public diplomacy, which might have softened Israeli opposition to a withdrawal.

In 1998, Netanyahu held secret negotiations with Hafez Assad, while seeking a route that would bypass talks with the Palestinians. There is disagreement concerning the proposals he conveyed to Assad via his envoy, American businessman Ronald Lauder. Netanyahu and his aides say he received Syria's agreement to allow Israel to remain on the "cliff line" (overlooking the Hula Valley), though this too would necessitate evacuation of all Israeli settlements on the Golan.

Associates of Barak, who succeeded Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office and saw the relevant documents, assert that Netanyahu was more generous, and that he proposed that the border with Syria be drawn "on the basis of the international boundary and the 1967 lines" - a rather vague formulation that leaves a lot of wiggle room for both sides.

According to both versions, Assad asked to see a map, Netanyahu refused, and the negotiations thus ended inconclusively. Their talks were not publicized, and came to light only on the eve of the 1999 election, in the television debate between Netanyahu and the defense minister he had dismissed, Yitzhak Mordechai (at the time also a candidate for prime minister), who said to him, "Bibi, look me straight in the eye," in reaction to Netanyahu's response to a question about the Golan. The details came to light only after Netanyahu fell from power. It is clear that despite his declarations, however, he was prepared for a significant withdrawal from the Golan in return for necessary security accommodations.

In the latest attempt to negotiate with Damascus, during Olmert's tenure, the two sides made do with indirect exchanges via Turkey. The efforts reached a peak during Olmert's visit to Ankara just prior to the start of Operation Cast Lead, when his counterpart, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spoke to Bashar Assad by phone and tried to figure out a formula for direct talks. Erdogan claims that he nearly succeeded, but the operation in the Gaza Strip ruined those chances.

Olmert sought a Syrian commitment to cool relations with Iran and to end its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. The Syrians refused, hinting that, at most, this stipulation could be an indirect result of an agreement, but not a precondition.

An interim agreement would bypass the obstacles that thwarted negotiations in the past, without breaking the basic rules of the Israeli-Arab peace process. Each side would simply postpone making its maximum demands and make do with less. Israel would, for the meantime, give up "the plate of hummus in Damascus" and the Syrians would give up "wading in Lake Kinneret."

Ground rules

How would such an arrangement look on the ground? Israel would withdraw from all or some of the Druze villages in the northern Golan. Syria could then claim it was repatriating citizens "liberated from the Israeli occupation," after having encouraged them "to resist" in recent years. The apples grown by the Druze would be transported to markets in Damascus without having to pass through United Nations checkposts, and without Red Cross mediation, as is presently required. To add to the credibility of the Israeli withdrawal, perhaps the possibility of evacuating a Jewish settlement or two would be considered. This would be harder for the right-wing parties to digest. Mount Hermon and its early-warning apparatus would remain under Israeli control, and the territory Syria would receive would be entirely demilitarized, the way Quneitra has been since Israel withdrew from it, in 1974. Israel would certainly offer citizenship to those Golan Druze who might prefer to remain within its territory.

According to Central Bureau of Statistics data from September 2008, there are 40,000 people living on the Golan Heights: 21,500 Druze in four villages (9,300 in Majdal Shams), and 18,500 Jews (6,500 in Katzrin and the rest in the 31 settlements of the Golan regional council).

The entire area is located in sovereign Israeli territory under the Golan Heights Law of 1981, but Israel has desisted from implementing some large-scale development and settlement plans, apparently because the idea of withdrawal is discussed every few years. There are no diplomatic pressures on Israel to "freeze the settlements on the Golan." The annual rate of population growth in the regional council, according to the CBS, is 3.6 percent - higher than the national average. This amounts to several hundred people, and in a peripheral area where there are few jobs.

The Golan Referendum Law of 1999 requires a majority of 61 Knesset members to agree to any concession involving sovereign Israeli territory, and confirmation of such a decision by national referendum, in accordance with rules that were to be established in separate legislation (which has not completed to this day). However, it can be assumed that if Netanyahu agrees to an interim arrangement, he will obtain a majority for it in the Knesset, with the help of the left-wing parties - as prime minister Menachem Begin did for the withdrawal from Sinai, and Sharon did for the pullout from Gaza.

Achievement of an interim agreement and its success would depend on Syria's willingness to distance itself from its "natural partners" in Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian organizations, and to relinquish its central position in the "resistance camp" vis-a-vis Israel. It also would depend on the willingness of the United States to offer Syria sweeteners, in the form of recognition of its status in Lebanon, seeing to the closing of the international investigation of Syrian involvement in the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and provision of economic aid.

Such a move has a clear precedent: the 1975 Israeli-Egyptian interim accord, in which the two countries initially agreed that the conflict between them, and in the entire Middle East, would not be resolved by military force, but rather via peaceful methods. They also affirmed they were "determined to reach a final and just peace settlement." Israel withdrew from key strategic points in Sinai - the Mitla and Gidi passes, which control the routes to the Suez Canal, and the Abu Rodeis oil field. Security arrangements were made in the evacuated areas, among them an important early-warning station operated by American crews (a precedent suggested later vis-a-vis Mount Hermon, in negotiations with Syria).

Ford's 'reevaluation'

The interim agreement was a natural continuation of the 1974 separation of forces agreements that ended the Yom Kippur War in Sinai and the Golan Heights, and included a small-scale Israeli withdrawal (from the Suez Canal and from Quneitra) and security arrangements, but no political requirements. The negotiations that preceded the agreement with Egypt were indirect, and carried out via the shuttle diplomacy of then-U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

The negotiations were difficult and circuitous, and spurred a severe crisis in relations between Israel and the United States, when Kissinger announced a "reevaluation" of America's policy in the Middle East as punishment for Israel's intractability. Prime minister Yizhak Rabin had difficulty dealing with his defense minister, Shimon Peres, who represented the hawkish line in the government. The right, headed by opposition leader Menachem Begin and the Gush Emunim settler organization, led the protest against the agreement, which involved insulting remarks about Kissinger (who was described as a traitor to the Jewish people).

The disappointment in Israel was profound. Even Haaretz reporters Matti Golan and Dan Margalit, who wrote a detailed postmortem about the negotiations and the agreement, lamented that, "Egypt received nearly everything it wanted, at a minimal price. The passes and Abu Rodeis are gone - and there is no trace of the cancellation of the state of war or elements that bring this cancellation any closer or advance a state of peace."

The accord effectively moved Egypt from the Soviet bloc into the U.S. camp, and the Soviet Union punished Egypt by canceling outstanding arms deals. From Israel's perspective, as well, the 1975 agreement presaged a step up in U.S. military aid and strategic cooperation, which was especially important to Rabin.

One of the sweeteners then-president Gerald Ford offered Rabin at the time was described in a famous letter, where he promised that the United States would "give great weight to Israel's position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights." In his second term as prime minister, Rabin went back to the idea of drafting interim accords as a prologue to peace. He obtained such an agreement from Jordan's King Hussein (the Washington Declaration), in which the two undertook to end the state of war between their countries, a few months before a final agreement was cemented, in October of 1994.

When the negotiations with the Syrians stalled, Rabin brought up the idea of "Majdal Shams first" as an interim step. However, Hafez Assad would not hear of it, and reminded the Americans of "how Kissinger had deceived him" when luring him into believing, in 1974, that after the separation of forces agreement, he would eventually be given all of the Golan.

Prof. Eyal Zisser, head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, believes that the younger Assad, like his father, will also refuse a partial deal. He thinks Bashar Assad will not be willing to give up the alliance with Iran, and at most would want to improve relations with the West while maintaining a close connection to Tehran. In Assad's view, there is no justification for interim measures that would only perpetuate and legitimate the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Syria would agree to taking the big step toward rapprochement with Israel only if it receives in return a full withdrawal to the lines of June 4, 1967.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy - who as head of Military Intelligence identified a turnaround in Syria's position and a willingness to make peace with Israel, and was involved in talks with Damascus and in other unofficial contacts - is also not enthusiastic about an interim agreement on the Golan. Saguy believes that a peace agreement with the Syrians is possible today, and finds it hard to see how Israel would benefit from a partial move. Such a move would be difficult to push through politically, because the public would prefer to support a comprehensive package including normalization, he observes.

In a situation, though, in which regional diplomacy is focusing on restraining Iran's mounting strength, and in which Israel will have a government that has reservations about a comprehensive withdrawal from the Golan, an interim agreement might be "the third way" that would reduce the danger of a conflagration and create a platform for progress. Especially in light of the fact that the comprehensive track has been tried again and again - and has always failed.