Sunday, August 08, 2004

Golan Talks according to Dennis Ross

Dennis Ross in the ''The Missing Peace,'' his memoir of 12 years as the central figure of American Middle East peace policies, explains that he was persuaded that at a certain moment, "Assad was genuinely trying to make a deal with Israel." This is not widely accepted outside the Arab world. Second, Israel and its negotiating partners, both Syrians and Palestinians, were perpetually out of sync with one another. When Ross reported Assad's enthusiasm to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, Barak came back with a new set of demands. And third, Barak did hope to make a far-reaching deal with Syrians and Palestinians, but ambitions for accomplishing both made the attainment of either more difficult. Barak wanted two years to withdraw settlers from the Golan Heights, to be returned to Syria as part of the deal. Why so long? He could not confront settlers from both the Golan Heights and the West Bank simultaneously. See the review by Ethan Bonner in the Times.

Daniel Pipes summarizes Ross' account of the negotiations in the following August 6 2004 article. Also valuable are his earlier articles listed here, in which he lays out the claims and counter-claims about how much of the Golan each of the Israeli PM's were willing to give up for what Syrian assurances.
Strange Twists in Syrian-Israeli Diplomacy by Daniel Pipes

One of the most secretive and unusual rounds of Arab-Israeli diplomacy took place in the summer of 1998, when three private American citizens, businessman Ronald Lauder, his aide Allen Roth, and magazine publisher George Nader, made nine trips to each of Damascus and Jerusalem, trying to secure a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty.

(I provided the fullest account of these negotiations – and the dispute surrounding what exactly Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered – in "The Road to Damascus: What Netanyahu almost gave away," The New Republic, July 5, 1999;
[In that article Pipes writes:]

In fact, Netanyahu gave more to the Syrians than did either of the predecessors he so deeply scorns, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. And, judging by new reports coming out of Israel, he also gave away more than Barak would.
and I brought this story up to date in a weblog entry "What Was Binyamin Netanyahu Ready to Concede on the Golan Heights?" on June 27, 2004, with subsequent additions.)

The publication of Dennis Ross's memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (Farrar Straus Giroux) offers much new detail on the impact of this diplomacy in the months after Netanyahu lost the prime ministry in May 1999 to Ehud Barak.

Ross, the long-standing American diplomat for the Middle East, picks up his account in what appears to be August 1999 (his memoir provides few dates). Barak and his colleagues, Ross recounts, expressed optimism about negotiations with the Asad government, for they
had received a piece of information that convinced them Asad would be willing to live with something less than an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines.
That information turned out to be from Ronald Lauder, in the form of "a paper consisting of ten points that Lauder claimed was largely agreed with Asad." Ross continues that if such agreement did exist,
Barak felt it would be possible to move quickly to agreement with Syria. Was Asad prepared to "validate" it? Only President Clinton would be able to find out, and so Barak believed it essential for Clinton to see Lauder and determine for himself if this was a promising track to pursue. If it was, it would have the added benefit of political cover, for it would enable Barak to say to the Israeli right that he was only agreeing to what had been accepted by Netanyahu.
Lauder then met with Clinton. He told the president that the Syrian and Israeli governments "had basically reached agreement on all issues: the border, security arrangements, peace, and Lebanon." (In contrast, in a statement published in Yedi`ot Aharonot, on July 2004, Lauder said that "None of the documents that were drafted during these talks was official, and no document was approved by Prime Minister Netanyahu.") Ross paraphrases Lauder to the effect that the two governments had boiled their agreement down

to ten points which they would have finalized except for Asad's insistence on reviewing maps on the border and the security arrangements and Bibi's refusal lest he lose all deniability. Then came Wye and the agreement with the Palestinians, Lauder explained, and Bibi did not have the political cover to pursue the effort further.

Ross pulled out a map and asked for specifics. Lauder pointed out that "Asad was prepared to draw the border off the Sea of Galilee and off the Jordan River." Ross asked what "basically reached agreement" meant and Lauder replied that "what he would show the President was 99 percent agreed [on by the two parties]."

That paper (which can be read at included ten provisions. Ross summarizes the second of them:

Israel would withdraw from the "Syrian lands taken in 1967" to "a commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923."

Ross expressed skepticism at the ten-point paper:

Once I had looked this over, the President asked me what I thought. I told him it was "too good to be true." But now I understood why Barak and his colleagues believed they did not need to commit to the Rabin pocket and the June 4 lines. [The 'pocket" refers to Yitzhak Rabin's having told Clinton that, were Israel's concerns satisfied, he would withdraw to the June 4, 1967, borders.] Now Sandy [Berger] and Madeleine [Albright] joined us, and the President told them I was skeptical about the content of the paper. But did I think Lauder was lying? I said, "No, he is sincere and I believe he believes much of what he is saying. But I am afraid he is not precise and what he considers minor differences are not so minor. Moreover, I think there is some real wishful thinking here." Where did I have the greatest doubts? I knew that the 1923 line was a complete nonstarter with Asad; in Asad's eyes, those were the colonial borders, and he would never accept them in a document.

[President Clinton, in the context of discussing the January 2000 Syria-Israel talks in Shepherdstown, Virginia writes in his memoirs:

Before he was killed, Yitzhak Rabin had given me a commitment to withdraw from the Golan to the June 4, 1967, borders as long as Israel's concerns were satisfied. The commitment was given on the condition that I keep it "in my pocket" until it could be formally presented to Syria in the context of a complete solution.

After Yitzhak's death, Shimon Peres reaffirmed the pocket commitment, and on this basis we had sponsored talks between the Syrians and the Israelis in 1996 at Wye River. Peres wanted me to sign a security treaty with Israel if it gave up the Golan, an idea that was suggested to me later by Netanyahu and would be advanced again by [Ehud] Barak. I had told them I was willing to do it.To probe the matter further, Clinton asked his staff to meet further with Lauder, which they did.

Ross asked Lauder

what questions he thought Asad might pose about the paper. He said Asad would have a problem with the bracketed language on the Israeli presence in the early-warning station - and that was all. What about the 1923 lines, not the June 4, 1967 lines? To my surprise, he insisted that Asad had agreed to this, and when Asad received the paper, we would see it was not a problem.

On the basis of this paper, Clinton called Asad:

Asad's response tended to reinforce my doubts. "This was really a bit strange," he said. He acknowledged having seen Lauder a number of times, but professed to know nothing about ten points. He said the effort with him had not succeeded and it had ended.

So Clinton sent the paper Lauder had given him to Asad (faxed to the personal attention of the ambassador, who was instructed to hand deliver it without comment to Asad).

Two days later, Asad responded, calling the President to say that Syria had not accepted this paper, and would not now. The effort with Lauder had ended; Asad preferred to work from the Rabin commitment - the 'pocket' - and have us make suggestions to the two sides. Ross subsequently states that Asad considered it "a mistake" to have participated in the Lauder-Nader round of diplomacy.

Despite this initial effort having gone nowhere, Ross tells about a round of super-secret Syria-Israel negotiations ("no one in the State Department was aware of it" other than his executive assistant and the secretary of state) he hosted a month later, in September 1999. At one point,

I pulled out the Lauder paper and showed it to him [Riad Daoudi, the Syrian representative to the talks] with the President's notations. I told him the President had gotten very enthusiastic when he was the ten points, and I reminded him about the value of having enthusiastic presidential involvement. The key for us was to take some of these points and build a structure around the traditional headings of withdrawal, peace, security, and the timetable.

Daoudi looked over the ten-point paper,

clearly impressed with the President's notes in the margin. But he said, "Dennis, I have seen these points; we spent thirteen hours going over them and drafting comments, and they don't reflect any of our comments. This is the first draft given to us, not the final version" in which he knew they [i.e., the Syrians] had insisted on the June 4 lines replacing the 1923 lines.

To which Ross said that this

was very important for us to know. Still, I added, there were legitimate points in the Lauder paper. We had a channel now, and we should build on it.

Daoudi responded non-committally to this and negotiations ended for the day.

When Barak called Ross, Ross told him that it was "a very disturbing discovery" that the draft Lauder had presented had lacked any of the Syrian comments. Barak

then observed that even if the Lauder points were not accurate, Asad had accepted negotiating over them. Daoudi was admitting as much.

But the next morning, Daoudi asked to speak to Ross alone.

He said he has spoken to Syrian Foreign Minister [Farouk] Shara and the Lauder points were off the table. Syria required a formula that was explicit on June 4 and on the "aims and principles" nonpaper as well. This was the starting point for a formal resumption of negotiations; nothing less was acceptable.

Despite this unpromising response, Ross tells how he

kept coming back to Barak's observation that the Lauder effort had produced a serious give-and-take on a paper. As I was being driven back to Zurich to catch a plane to Cairo, I came up with an idea. Why not recreate an indirect negotiation on a paper like the Lauder points.

The Syrians and Israelis both accepted this formulation and talks proceeded on that basis.

In mid-September 1999, Ross recounts, Ronald Lauder

sent a letter to President Clinton enclosing an eight-point paper which he claimed included the final points that had been agreed upon by both sides in 1998. Gone was the reference to the 1923 borderline, replaced by withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines.

Ross lists a number of other elements that had changed and notes that "Syrian concerns were clearly addressed, but this was a very different paper from the ten points we had been shown." Ross then asks:

Why hadn't we - Americans and Israelis alike - been shown this paper? Why had we seen only the first Israeli draft instead? My guess was that Bibi didn't want to give up deniability and so asked his friend [Ronald Lauder] to reveal only the ten-point version - not this later version reflecting Syrian comments. Whatever the motivation of the Lauder effort - or the reason for presenting the preliminary paper as a final version - it had certainly sown confusion. Now Lauder's "clarifying letter" to President Clinton indicated that Bibi Netanyahu had committed to withdrawal to the June 4 lines - which meant that Barak's position on peace with Syria was less forthcoming than Netanyahu's, at least insofar as it was revealed by Lauder's eight-point paper.

The mood in the negotiations shifted abruptly with the appearance of the eight-point paper:

I showed Foreign Minister Shara the eight-point paper in New York and he confirmed that this had been acceptable to Syria. But it was not acceptable to
Barak. The points he had seen as so advantageous to Israel were gone.

Negotiations did follow, but on a new basis, culminating in the Clinton meeting with Hafiz al-Asad in March 2000. That meeting came to naught, however (and Ross's account of how this came to pass is fascinating), and no significant talks have taken place since.

Ultimately the Syrian-Israeli track had to fail during Hafiz al-Asad's lifetime because he was petrified of its implications for his rule. Interestingly, the Lauder-Nader round of diplomacy, for all its controversy and confusion, came as close to an agreement as has any other effort.


Pipes blames Asad for the failure of a Golan deal. I abbreviate his argument, but all the following words are taken from Pipes:

A policy like anti-Zionism is an instrument, not an end in itself. In this context, peace with Israel poses three threats. First, it would alienate such key constituencies as military and security personnel, Ba`th Party members, and government employees.

Second, other Syrians understand it would mean that their country sheds totalitarian rule and move into the American camp.

Third, Asad has relied on the tools of the police state. The prospect of greater openness, more democracy, and even flocks of Israeli tourists in the souks of Aleppo must frighten him terribly. He surely fears such changes would endanger the position of his family.

He does not in fact seek peace with Israel. In all likelihood, he negotiates as a way to improve his standing in Washington. If peace itself spells little but trouble, the peace process brings many benefits. Asad's goal, then, is not peace but a peace process.

Pipes uses the same argument here that the Arabs use against Israel - that Israel is interested only in a peace process and not in peace. It strings along talks to placate the US but builds settlements at break-neck speed, undermining trust and showing its true intentions.

Syria clearly faces risks in making peace, as does Israel, but that does not mean that neither side wants peace if the terms are right. Clinton believed that Asad wanted peace. Ross believed that Asad was serious. I see no reason to take Pipes' word over theirs.

Syria has much to gain from peace. Most Syrians are fed up with losing. They have no illusions about Syria's strength or ability to take back the Golan though military means. Both Asad governments have faced very little internal resistance since Hafiz decimated the Muslim Brotherhood in 1981-82. There is no reason to believe that the regime is unstable or will not have a raison d'etre after a peace is signed.

Although Asad does perhaps gain some "legitimacy" among some Syrians for being the only remaining Arab rejectionist state, he also alienates many other Syrians, who are fed up with the country's isolation. Bashar is trying very hard to dig Syria out of isolation, but he will insist on getting back the Golan up to the 1923 lines, plus a little extra.


At 3/24/2005 01:31:00 PM, Anonymous mondo said...

I'm shocked no one has replied on this... Now it makes sense to me that Americans, even Congressman and Senators, have no clue of what is really going on with Syria. I watched the Syrian Ambassador speaking on C-Span this morning and he mentions you as a reference to a whole room full of naive Georgetown students...Sad that I'm the only one who took the time to research the article. Very sad.


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