chapter  10
30 Pages

On the way to peace, 1993–2000

At the beginning of 1993, for the first time in the history of relations between Israel and Syria, the necessary conditions existed for the development of a political process between the two countries. At that one point in time, the interests of Israel, Syria and the United States converged, encouraging the three countries to seek a peace treaty, and correlating with the desire and readiness of the leaders of the three states to achieve such a treaty. From that time and for the next seven years, until March 2000, four Israeli heads of state, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak, and the presidents of Syria and the United States, Assad and Clinton, strove to reach agreement. But the existence of these necessary conditions did not suffice. On the way to peace, two additional obstacles had to be eliminated: the first was political-tactical and the second was psychological. And, ultimately, these could not be overcome. While Assad was viewing the process primarily from the standpoint of the Israeli-Syrian track (including Lebanon), the Israeli policy-makers were also involved in other channels of negotiation. They were acting on the Jordanian track and, in particular, on the Israeli-Palestinian track, going back and forth among the three sides on the assumption that there were better chances of achieving quick results in one of these channels or of using progress in one track as leverage to put pressure on the others. This led to the fact that every discontinuance of progress on the Syrian track increased the suspicion of the Syrians, damaged the understandings which had already been achieved, and constantly added to the difficulties in resuming the process. The second obstacle was psychological. Already at an early stage, Israel and Syria had reached understanding regarding the framework of a political agreement, which was actually based on the treaty signed between Israel and Egypt: return of Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan Heights, and assurance of Israeli security. These would be anchored in a peace treaty, with demilitarization and American guarantees of its execution, and with the assurance that Israel would have a steady and permanent water supply. Actually, these were the principles of the Israeli unity government decision of 19 June 1967, which were reiterated and approved by the Israeli government in November 1993.1 However, when the sides and their mediators reached a discussion of the details necessary to apply these understandings to an agreement, they encountered an emotional

barrier which stemmed from lack of sufficient knowledge of the facts, and the gap between these and the memories of each side regarding the details of the dispute. The public, particularly in Israel, had not been confronted with the exact details about the Golan and Israeli-Syrian relations in the past, and thus, on each side, the threatening image of the “other” side was not attenuated. For as long as no peace treaty was achieved, the leaders of Israel, who were aiming at an agreement, avoided preparing public opinion in their country to overcome the psychological barrier. At the same time, Syria did not want to give up the principal bargaining chip it held in return for a peace treaty, its support for terror activity against Israel, and this increased the hostility of the Israeli public toward the Syrians. The unwillingness or inability of the Syrian President to initiate trust-building measures directed toward the Israeli public aided in maintaining this hostility. The narrative obstacle and the failure to acknowledge the facts were also true of the molders of public opinion and decision-makers, especially the Syrians. This was so at the beginning of the negotiations: on 3 August 1993, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, arrived in Damascus with the sense of a breakthrough, holding Rabin’s commitment to withdraw from the Golan with the signing of a peace treaty if it provided answers to Israel’s needs. He was surprised to hear Assad’s question: “A full retreat to which line?” Not only did he not have the answer, but he and Dennis Ross, who was with him, did not even understand the significance of the question. Only months later did they learn that full withdrawal from the Golan could refer to a number of different lines of which, although the physical distance between them was small, the emotionally charged abyss between them was enormous. Seven years later, the final coda of the process was no different. In Geneva, in March 2000, at a meeting between President Clinton and Assad, a borderline was actually proposed to Assad which suited his demand to return “all territory that was in Syrian control on 4 June 1967.” Assad, who had not been prepared for the significance of the proposal – that this would mean a border which no longer reached the waterline of Lake Kinneret – immediately refused. This did not leave an opening for explanations, and led to the end of the long period during which four Israeli prime ministers had conducted negotiations with the Syrian President. Research and writing of political history can only be carried out from a distance of decades after the events. Until then, it is difficult to base research on archival materials which are not available for consideration and which are revealed only gradually and partially, and even then, which require strenuous effort to assemble and study. This difficulty exists when investigating the political process which took place between Syria and Israel from 1992 to 2000. At this stage, the reconstruction and analysis of political developments during that period are based on interviews, newspaper reports, personal knowledge and the memoirs of those who were involved. Most of these sources are subjective, perhaps biased, and may have gaps or errors.2