Secret UK conference on Middle East told Syria is ready to consider border corrections in peace deal
By Sharon Sadeh
LONDON (Ha'aretz - 23 August 2002) - A closed-door conference that brought together opinion makers and officials from the Middle East - including Israelis, Syrians, and Palestinians - heard surprising readiness on the part of the Syrians to discuss border corrections in any peace deal with Israel involving a return of the Golan Heights.
In addition, one of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's closest advisers, MP Peter Mandelson, said that the lines of a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians are well-known to all and that the mutual bloodshed will not change it, even if the bloodletting continues for years to come. He said that an international force, led by the Americans, not the UN, might be necessary to guarantee a cease-fire that could corral the sides into negotiations.
According to Mandelson, who as Secretary for Northern Ireland was involved in the peace negotiations there, Israel and the Palestinians are closer to a final accord than the Irish, since the Irish agreed to postpone a final agreement until a plebiscite is held. Meanwhile, the sides are proceeding through an interim agreement. With the outlines of the final status deal between Israel and the Palestinians almost certain to be along the lines of the Taba and Clinton plan programs, the conflict in the Middle East is much closer to solution than is apparent, he said.
The conference was organized by the Next Century Foundation, among whose founders is former PLO treasurer Jaweed al Ghussein, and whose advisory board includes both Arab and Jewish businessmen.
Attending the conference, which was dubbed "Beyond the Boundaries - a confidential meeting between opinion formers to search for a rationale amongst the various plans and options currently in circulation in the Middle East," were private and public officials from all sides in the region. The meeting's agenda was to "discuss the plethora of peace plans that are currently in circulation and find a viable thread."
Among the Israelis attending was Oded Ben Haim, director of Palestinian Affairs in the Foreign Ministry, and Prof. Itzhak Galnoor, a former head of the Civil Service Commission.
On the Palestinian side, a minor flap erupted when the PA representative, Jihad al Wazir, canceled his attendance because of the presence of several Palestinian opposition figures who have long been seeking the removal of Yasser Arafat. These included Tawfiq al Ghussein, son of the former PLO treasurer, who is running as an independent candidate against Yasser Arafat for the presidency of the PA. However, Bassam Abu Sharif, the former spokesman of the PFLP and now an adviser to Arafat, showed up.
Most surprising were the Syrian representatives among the 40 delegates to the conference. These were Fawaz Akhras, father-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Ghayth Armanazi, a former Arab League ambassador and former head of the Arab Bankers Association. The organizers believe the two attended with full knowledge and approval of the uppermost echelons of the Syrian government.
Armanazi said that Syria disapproves of ending the conflict with a series of separate agreements, and believes that the peace process should continue along the lines of the regional negotiations according to the Madrid Conference. He said the Oslo process failed because Syria was opposed to it.
Turning to the Israeli-Syrian dispute, however, the Syrian surprised the audience when he said that if necessary, Syria would consider border corrections in an agreement with Israel over the Golan Heights. So far, Syria has insisted on Israel returning to the June 4, 1967 lines.
But the speaker insisted that for Syria to reach an agreement, Israel has to clarify what it regards as the final line to which it will withdraw and cease using ambiguous statements, like "the depth of withdrawal will equal the depth of peace," a phrase the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin often used to explain his position on the Golan Heights question.
In addition to discussing the outlines of a final Israeli-Palestinian deal, and the dispute with Syria, the participants also reviewed "100 commercial projects for the area that could be implemented immediately," if some form of political settlement is reached. Jerusalem and the fate of the holy sites was also on the agenda.