chapter  4
Failure on the Syrian Track
Pages 37

During the negotiations for the 1975 Interim Accord with Egypt, as already noted, Yitzhak Rabin had this to say in response to American pressure: “no Arab ruler is prepared to make true peace and normalization of relations with Israel.”1 He explained that the Arabs demand full withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 borders, which Israel cannot do, for security reasons. Indeed, Rabin was not the Israeli leader but, rather, Begin who agreed to do just this in exchange for peace with Egypt. In 1992, however, it was Rabin who was challenged to do it for peace with a second Arab state: Syria. Few, if any, believed that peace could be achieved with Syria without full withdrawal from the Golan Heights – no less than what had been accorded Egypt. And in 1974 Rabin had said very clearly that he saw “no possibility of our giving up the Golan Heights …. . Even under a peace treaty, the Golan Heights must be within Israel’s jurisdiction.”2

Therefore, the major questions to be addressed are: was the Rabin of 1992 the same as the Rabin of 1974-1975? Or did he believe that peace was possible with Syria, and was he willing to pay the price in territory? And, ultimately, was Rabin’s attitude the key – or obstacle – to achieving a breakthrough, as distinct from the Syrian side of the negotiations? There have been a number of attempts to answer these questions, most

authoritatively in the quite detailed accounts of the negotiations provided by direct participants in the 1992-1995 talks.3 These, along with other observers, differ regarding the positions or intentions of President Hafiz al-Assad of Syria; but it is agreed that the potential for a breakthrough may be traced to Syria’s agreement to participate in the Madrid Conference of 1991.4 The conference itself was the result of an outside factor – namely, a commitment the United States had made to the Arab countries, and specifically Syria, in order to build a coalition against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Saddam Hussein had proclaimed that he would withdraw from Kuwait when Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories. While this was a basically demagogic pronouncement, Washington nonetheless understood the connection in the minds of its would-be allies in the region and, therefore, spoke of what might be termed “sequential linkage.”5 President Bush promised the Arabs and Gorbachev (the Soviets still had a Friendship Pact with Iraq) that following the Kuwait crisis, an effort would be made to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in

order to ensure stability in the region. Washington did, indeed, have an interest in such stability, and so it organized the Madrid Conference under the co-sponsorship of the US and the Soviet Union as a step in that direction. Syria still resisted participating, but agreed after US Secretary of State Baker assured Assad that Washington would provide guarantees and even peacekeepers should a deal be made on the Golan.6 Assad’s underlying motivation, however, was apparently his interest in improved relations with the United States given the loss of his Soviet backers and the “new world order” of the post-Soviet era, as well as economic problems at home. And improved relations with the United States dictated at least some effort at peacemaking with Israel. Whether Assad’s motives for attending the Madrid Conference were purely US focused or, perhaps, the “strategic decision for peace” that the Syrians were later to claim they had made became a major question.7