War Fever - Israel and Syria
January 23, 2001
Tensions continue to grow in the Middle East region, armies continue to prepare,
public opinion continues to be manipulated. Though Ehud Barak too is a militarist
-- a former commando, General, and Chief of Staff of the Army -- Ariel Sharon
brings with him historical baggage and war-criminal image which could easily
contribute to a clash of armies sooner rather than later, even if not fully intended
by either side.
SYRIA GEARS FOR FEARED ISRAEL ATTACK BEFORE ELECTION
DAMASCUS REDEPLOYING TROOPS AND ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILES
By Amir Oren Ha'aretz Correspondent
[Ha'aretz 22 January 2001]: The Syrian armed forces have been on the highest
state of alert since the start of the year, in anticipation of an Israeli
attack against Syria in the weeks before Israel's prime ministerial election.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the backing of senior members of the
Syrian military and intelligence, ordered defensive redeployments throughout
the front, including areas deep in Syrian territory.
As part of the redeployments, the Syrians are shifting air defense systems,
including surface-to-air missiles, and are reinforcing critical positions.
On several Israeli decision-making levels, including intelligence analysis
and political circles, the Syrian actions are being seen as part of serious
Damascus concerns that the Israeli air force will launch a large-scale
strike against Syrian positions, both in Lebanon and inside Syria.
The Syrians worry that Israel will use an attack by the radical Shi'ite
organization, Hezbollah, against Israel's border with Lebanon, as an excuse
to launch a retaliatory attack against Syria. The "excuse" could be
cross-border raid, rockets shot across the border at northern Israeli towns,
bombing IDF vehicles or kidnapping Israeli Defense Forces' soldiers.
Israel has accused Syria of not doing enough to rein in Hezbollah, and
blamed Damascus for allowing large shipments of Iranian aid to be flown to
Hezbollah guerrillas through Syrian airports.
Israel has not retaliated for several Hezbollah attacks since it withdrew
from its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon last May. But it
has threatenned a major action after the kidnapping of three IDF soldiers
from a contested area on the northern border last October.
Damascus is concerned that Israel will target Syrian air-defense systems,
especially its surface-to-air batteries.
According to Israeli Military Intelligence and the General Staff, Syrian
concerns, albeit exaggerated, are not part of a Syrian diversion in a plan
to initiate an attack against Israel.
Damascus fears Israeli decision-making circles are keen to recapture some of
the deterrent power lost in the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, and that this
tendency will only increase as the February 6 elections draw near. Recent
IDF operations are being interpreted by the Syrians as preparations for
initiating an attack.
In an effort to assuage Syrian concerns, Israel sent a number of messages to
Damascus, through U.S. intermediaries, in which the government of Prime
Minister Ehud Barak clearly tells the Syrian regime Israel has no intentions
to attack Syria.
Israel also urged both sides to prevent any incidents that could spark
conflagration, particularly as a result of mistaken interpretation of the
other side's intentions.
HOW BARAK FAILED THE PEACE WITH SYRIA
Tanya Reinhart and Irit Katriel
Between December 1999 and March 2000, a great hope
for peace with Syria turned into a big disappointment.
While the Israeli and most foreign media worked hard
to portray Assad as the rejectionist, it didn't fully
conceal the fact that Barak never agreed to withdraw
from the Golan heights.
[July 2000 - Mit'an (Translated from Hebrew)]:
In December 1999, Clinton announced the renewal of the peace talks
between Israel and Syria. The feeling in Israel was of a great historic
moment. The dominant message which was conveyed by the Israeli media
was optimistic: what was seen a great hope was peace with Syria and
quiet in the north. Peace like with Egypt: Israelis can vacation
in Nueiba and Dahab - they just need to do it as is customary between
two countries, with a visa and a border crossing in Eilat. The popular
media published articles about tourist attractions in Damascus.
The polls indicated that most of the Israeli public agrees to a
withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace. Even three months
later, when the language of imminent peace has changed into one of
a "disappointment" with Syria, and the newspaper headlines announced
that "the support for withdrawal is decreasing", the public continued
to support: in a comprehensive poll which was conducted by the Tel
Aviv university's Yafeh institute for strategic research, 60% of
Israelis Jews supported a withdrawal from ALL of the Golan in exchange
for peace with Syria. The conductor of the poll, Prof Asher Arian,
explained that this poll is more reliable than similar polls because
it was spanned over a month, and not over a week, as is usually done,
people were interviewed in their homes and not over the phone, and
the number of participants was large: 1201 compared to the customary
number of around 500.
How is it that despite the support of most of the Israelis, no
agreement was realized?
This isn't, of course, the first time that the Israeli-Syrian
negotiations appeared to have entered a high gear. The previous round,
which began in 1994, seemed no less promising. On 11.4.94, the main
headline of Haaretz (one of many) announced: "working assumption -
a full withdrawal from the Golan". The negotiations lasted nearly
two years. Then, too, Israel was flooded with "we are with the Golan"
demonstrations, but in the negotiations, nothing moved. Rabin insisted
that they will first discuss all the details of the security
arrangements and demilitarization, and postpone the discussion of
the extent of the withdrawal to a later stage. And so, after two years
of negotiations, the committees were still discussing the position
of the early warning system and managed to produce one unsigned
'non-paper' which doesn't mention the word "withdrawal", while Rabin
continues to invest huge sums in development and construction on the
It appeared that Israel is planning on many more years of negotiations,
and one could wonder what their purpose is. Apparently, a cold status-
quo has been maintained with Syria for years - Israel annexed the
Golan, and Syria remained quiet. But in fact, it was clear that without
peace, Syria won't lift a finger against the Hizbollah, which was
giving the IDF hell in Lebanon. Rabin discovered the alternative
recipe: during the negotiations, Syria must restrain Hizbollah, to
prove the seriousness of its intentions. About a week after the
beginning of the negotiations, we were informed that "Syrian army
units raided Hizbollah strongholds and confiscated weapons" (Haaretz
During the two years of negotiations, there was relative quiet in
Lebanon, and it appeared that it is possible to impose on the Syrians
the same tactics that Rabin played on the Palestinians - endless
negotiations, during which the other side replaces the IDF in the
police work of the occupation. But in 1996 Assad was fed up, and he
withdrew from the negotiations. Gradually, the disasters for the IDF
in Lebanon renewed.
The feeling in December 1999 was that this peace round will be
different. This time, "the agreement is almost all done" and will
be achieved by short negotiations. It seemed that things are moving
ahead at a high pace. On 16.12.99 the two sides met for a ceremony
on the white house lawn and in January, they were already engaged
in intensive talks in Shepherdstown. But then it all stopped.
Since the closing of the Shepherdstown meeting (on 9.1.00) there were
no negotiations and in the Clinton-Assad summit in Geneva on 26.3.00
the death of the process was declared.
The formal explanation which was given for the failure of the talks
was Assad's insistence on controlling a small strip of land on the
Kinneret shore. But examining the formal documents, and what appeared
in the media, reveals a completely different picture.
DECEMBER 1999: FROM WASHINGTON TO Shepherdstown
The basic assumption in the Israeli public's perception of the process
was that Israel is willing to withdraw from all of the Golan (excluding
a small strip of land on the Kinneret shore). But what is the source
of this assumption? Not Barak's speeches. He never said "withdrawal
from the Golan" or "dismantling of settlements". An example of the
artwork of creating a wrong perception: in Yediot of 10.12.99, the
main title announced: "Barak on the Golan settlers: they will leave
their homes after fulfilling a historic mission". On page two, the
exact quote from Barak's speech at the labor center meeting appears,
and doesn't include one word about evacuation - only about the
importance of the settlers: "They built a home, and vineyard and
village, and if it weren't for their work, determination and moral
stature it wouldn't have been possible to begin negotiations with
Syria, and we would have been now without security and without the
Golan. We are all deeply connected to the Golan's landscapes, to the
settlement mission on the Golan, which was mostly done by people who
were sent by our party. I say to the people of the Golan: we take
your hand in appreciation of what you did."
The only source for interpreting his words as willingness to withdraw
is: "Following the speech of the prime minister ... a senior minister
said: 'It's all over, they need to start evacuating'.
Barak maintained the same vagueness when he left for the Shepherdstown
discussions. At the airport, he announced: "I am leaving on a mission
of the whole nation, to bring peace, and I am moved by the scope of
the responsibility. This is where Anwar Sadat landed, and from here
Menachem Begin departed to make peace with Egypt." (Haaretz 3.1.00).
This is what was absorbed in the public's perception: the analogy
with the peace treaty with Egypt. But if we pay attention, we will
see that the only analogy is exactly what was said: that in the Egypt
affairs there were, naturally, departures and landings at the same
Tel-Aviv airport that Barak was leaving to Shepherdstown from.
Here is the rest of his speech (as quoted by Yediot of the 3.1.00):
"Nobody knows what the border line will be" (a position which he will
repeat all along the Shepherdstown discussions) "but I did not hide
that there is a painful price for an agreement, and we will not sign
one for any price. We are going towards a difficult agreement, but
one which is necessary to bring an end to the era of wars. I lost
many friends on the Golan and this doesn't come easy to me. It hurts
me a lot to talk about the Golan". If you want, you can interpret
this pain over discussing the Golan as willingness to give it up.
But the only thing which Barak explicitly promises at the end of his
speech is that "we will not sign an agreement which will not
strengthen, in our opinion, the security of Israel". And he kept this
promise - he indeed didn't sign any agreement.
THE Shepherdstown DOCUMENT
At the end of the Shepherdstown meeting (8.1.00) the mediators prepared
a summary document (which was supposed to remain confidential) that
outlines the positions of both sides. The Arab language newspaper
Al Hayat printed on 9.1.00 a summary of this document, based on Syrian
sources. Israel denied the authenticity of the summary and exposed
the full document to the media. It appeared in Haaretz and Yediot
on 13.1.00 Comparing the Syrian version with the Israeli version is
From examining the Syrian version, it appears that peace is indeed
reachable. First, it appears that the border dispute can be resolved:
It has been often claimed in the Israeli media that the debate
remaining between the Israeli and Syrian negotiators regards a small
strip of land between the international border (Israel's position)
and the border at the time of the 67 war (the 'June 4' line - Syria's
position). The importance of this strip is in the control over water
sources. The news in the Syrian version of the document is the clause
that "Syria acknowledges that the June 4th line is not a border and
is not drawn, and therefore is willing to cooperate in drawing the
lines". (Section A: "borders committee"). Interpreters in Israel viewed
this clause as signaling that Syria may be willing to compromise
on this issue, and perhaps will agree to symbolic water gestures,
as was the case in the agreements with Jordan.
Another claimed area of dispute has been the nature of the peace
relations. On this, Syria proposes now "to constitute regular peace
relations, as between two neighboring countries" (Section B: "the
normal peace relations"). That is, peace like with Egypt.
As for the security concerns of Israel, Syria "welcomes the presence
of international forces under the US command in the Golan Heights"
(Section C: "security arrangements"). Even more significant, in this
respect, is what's behind the screen: Syria is committed to make sure
that the Hizbollah will not operate against civilians in the Israeli
North, and has already passed a painful test, when Lebanese children
were bombarded in the Southern Lebanon village Arab Salim. Syria
prevented retaliations against Israeli civilians (which were permitted
in case civilians are targeted in Southern Lebanon, according to the
terms of the agreement reached between Israel and the Hizbollah
following the 1996 'Grapes of Wrath' war).
There is no doubt that the Syrian leak to El Hayat indicated its
readiness for peace.
However, the full version of this document reveals how far away
agreement is (contrary to Syria which published a summary, Israel
published the full text of the document). During the Shepherdstown
talks it was reported that Barak refused to commit himself to a border
line and like Rabin before him, insisted that the borders issue will
be discussed only in the end of the negotiations. This stand is
confirmed in the document. All that the document says about the border
line is that "the location of the border line will be determined by
taking security and other considerations into account..." (section I).
Let us examine the relevant parts of the document.
Section I - establishing peace and security in recognized borders
1. The state of war between Israel and Syria now ends and peace
is established between them. The sides will maintain normal peace
relations as defined in section III.
2. The international, secure and recognized border between Israel
(I) and Syria (S) is the border defined in section II. The
position of the border was agreed between the sides (S: based
on the June 4th 1967 lines) (I: will be determined by taking
security and other considerations into account, as well as other
crucial considerations of both sides and their legal
considerations). The state of Israel will (S: withdraw) (I:
redeploy) all its military forces (S: and civilians) behind this
border line according to the appendix to this agreement. (S:
from this point on, each side with exercise its full sovereignty
on its side of the international border, on top of what appears
in this agreement).
Section II - the international border
1. The international border between Israel and Syria is as appears
in the maps in the appendix - this border is the permanent,
secure, and recognized international border between Israel and
Syria, and comes to replace any other border or boundary between
them. (Haaretz, 13.1.00)
The document is a draft prepared by the US for a peace treaty, if
and when it will be signed. It outlines a general framework, but marks
by parentheses the points on which Israel (I) and Syria (S) differ.
On the borders issue, the document refers us to an unnumbered appendix.
Meaning, an appendix which doesn't exist yet and which is to include
the maps that will be agreed upon. At this stage, Israel hasn't even
offered yet a draft for the map, and only provided the general phrasing
that we mentioned.
But what really reveals what Barak was willing to give for peace is
the meaning he gives to this mysterious border line which will be
determined at the end of negotiations: throughout the whole document
the Israeli version stresses that after the peace treaty there will
be no "withdrawal" of the Israeli army, but only "redeployment of
forces". The difference might appear to be semantic, but the experience
of the Oslo accords, in which Israel committed only to redeployment,
reveals its meaning: withdrawal entails complete evacuation of military
and civilian forces, including dismantling of settlements, and shifting
sovereignty, while redeployment means only moving the forces outside
of certain areas, thus maintaining control of the occupying side.
Indeed, Israel insists that only military forces, but no Israel
civilians, will be redeployed in the Golan Heights, while the Syrian
version explicitly mentions withdrawal of military and civilian forces.
Meaning, the document reaffirms what has been reported on other
occasions in the Israeli media: Israel did not commit to the evacuation
of a single settlement on the Golan. Israel's intentions to leave
the settlements intact appear in another place in the document:
Section III - normal peace relations Appendix - defines the agreed
procedures for establishing and developing these relations (I:
including the time frame for finalizing the necessary agreements
and the arrangements for the inhabitants and the Israeli
settlements in the areas from which the military forces will
be moved according to section I) (S: ?)
All Israel has offered, then, is a meaningless redeployment which
will leave the Israeli settlers and settlements in place. To remove
all doubt, let's look again at section I: Israel does not accept the
Syrian position that after the moving of forces "each side will
exercise its sovereignty in its side of the border". So, whatever
line will eventually be declared as 'border', the sovereignty over
the Golan Heights will remain Israeli.
In the meantime, not only did the construction on the Golan continue
all through the negotiations, but immediately when the talks began,
the Golan was awarded priority A status, which gives it preference
for development (Yediot 17.12.99).
After Israel published the full text of the document (which was
supposed to remain confidential), the Syrians suddenly stopped the
negotiations. (When the Shepherdstown round ended, the Israeli media
mentioned a second round to be convened soon, but the Syrians did
not return to the negotiation table). How can this be explained? It
is reasonable to believe that Assad knew in advance, that Barak has
no intention of offering him more than Rabin's concept of endless
negotiations. This is why he wasn't enthusiastic, at first, about
renewing the negotiations, and as was mentioned again and again in
the Israeli and US media, it took massive pressure to bring him back
to the negotiating table. In normal circumstances, the need for this
pressure seems strange - He is offered all of the Golan with withdrawal
from Lebanon; he is offered a water arrangement with Turkey, and he
refuses: Without threats and pressure he won't agree to have the Golan
back. But assuming that all he was offered was to continue to fight
Israel's war with Hizbollah in return for a Rabin style peace show,
it is understandable why pressure was necessary.
Assad gave in to the pressure, because he was threatened, not only
with severing of the economic sanctions in the midst of a drought
year, but also with a Kosovo style war: the IDF will leave Lebanon
unilaterally, and with the first katyusha on the Galilee (which even
Assad cannot control) the West will be at peace seeking Israel's side
when it will attack Syria.
Barak, at least, mentioned his Kosovo vision on several occasions.
Already in July 1999 he said: "I am confident in entering agreements
when the IDF is very strong, equipped with the most advanced systems
in the world, the type which enabled in Kosovo, for the first time
in History, to lead a war which will bring the surrender of a local
dictator without one casualty on the attacker's side." (Aluf Ben,
Haaretz, 27.7.99, page 3b). But this isn't only about words. All
through the negotiations, the IDF held extensive maneuvers on the
Golan, which simulated war with Syria. During the Shepherdstown
meeting, we were informed that the IDF is holding the fifth maneuver
in this series. (Amir Oren, Haaretz 14.1.00). What would have Israel
said if Syria would have done the same during negotiations?
But the carrot beside the Kosovo stick was the negotiations excuse
and the appearance that Israel is indeed considering to give up the
Golan. With these, Assad could justify to his people the continuation
of the talks. In this spirit, he ordered to publish an optimistic
version of headway at Shepherdstown. The publishing of the full
Shepherdstown document canceled even the appearance. Even if the
contents of the document didn't sink in the Israeli public perception,
it was published all over the world and it was no longer possible
for the Syrians to pretend that they believe that Barak is close to
giving up the Golan heights. Assad decided to leave the talks.
MARCH 2000: THE CLINTON-ASSAD SUMMIT
Clinton summoned Assad to a summit meeting in Geneva on 26.3.00. Before
this summit, the media went a long way to depict the negotiations
as stuck due to Syrian stubbornness. In Yediot of 24.3.00, a large
lettered title for an article by Shimon Shiffer said "Clinton will
tell Assad: it is your turn to be flexible". But in the article itself
we read that American sources are saying that their problem "is that
Barak is not willing to give us clear answers regarding the withdrawal
to the June 4, 1967 lines, as Assad demands. He prefers to wrap his
position by vague statements about what his predecessors have committed
to, commitments which he cannot erase, and we are left to interpret
his hints and convey them to Damascus." Barak is quoted in this article
as saying "I will not give any political commitment to Assad before
we know exactly what we will get in return..."
And indeed, the summit failed. The Israeli and most of the foreign
media continued the line it started: Assad refused to compromise on
the Kinneret shore, and by this said a definite no to peace. They
topped this by stating that this was his last chance to reach an
agreement with Israel.
But along this version, another one appeared: the one which was
reported by Robert Fisk in the British Independent on 26.3.00: "The
two men held three hours of talks, through interpreters, at the
Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, with the Syrian leader patiently
explaining he was not going to fall into the same 'peace' trap as
the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. He will
not make peace with Israel before guaranteeing the return of all of
the occupied Golan, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Mr Arafat signed a peace settlement then failed to gain a majority
of the occupied West Bank or a capital in Jerusalem."
In this narrative, the dispute is not over the 500 meters at all ("it
was conveyed on behalf of Assad that he is willing to compromise on
the withdrawal line, and even to full Israeli control over the whole
of the Kineret shore, while continuing to negotiate water rights").
The dispute is over the model of the peace. There are two models in
our history: in the Egyptian model, all stages of the withdrawal and
guarantees were finalized before the treaty was signed (the later
discussions surrounded the autonomy for the Palestinians). The
withdrawal was set to spread over three years, and only after 2/3
of Sinai was evacuated, embassies were set up. The Taba issue remained.
Both sides held it precious, and the Israelis used to spend their
vacations on its shores. That's why the decision regarding it was
left for the end.
In the Arafat model, the Oslo agreement was signed with almost nothing
agreed upon, besides Israeli declarations of principle about
willingness for a withdrawal. Seven years later, it turns out that
the Palestinians have halted the Intifadah, but Arafat didn't get
anything of what was promised to him in the west bank. What was
realized was the autonomy plan which the Palestinians always rejected.
Assad said that he will agree to a Sadat style peace, and not to an
Arafat style one. Barak is demanding that he will first sign, open
embassies and fight the Hizbollah. And then, if we will be satisfied,
we will withdraw. This is the Arafat model. Barak does not agree to
the Sadat model.
Yediot of the 27.3.00 also reported that Syrian sources said that
Assad brought with him to Geneva "a compromise offer regarding
normalization", and that he had agreed to an early warning station
on the Hermon which will be staffed by American and French technicians,
along with some from a "third party", which could include Israelis.
But this appeared in the small letters. The titles announced that
"The summit with Assad failed" on the first page and "Assad said no"
in huge letters on pages 2 and 3.
To remove any doubt as to who is to blame for the collapse of the
talks, Nahum Barnea provided an analysis in the same newspaper, in
which he described the summit as a slap on the face which the ego
driven Assad gave to Clinton, and added: "Syria belongs to a type
of country which is disappearing. The moustache type. Assad brought
with him to Geneva some dozens of such moustaches, who sat yesterday
in the Hotel lobby, whispered to each other and were really frightened
whenever a non-Syrian approached them. Tyrant regimes can probably
last, for years. If Sadam Hussein is lasting in Iraq, there is no
reason why Assad will not last in Syria..."
Beyond the demonizing which describes people as frightened moustaches
with whom we certainly cannot achieve peace deals, it is worthwhile
to remember that during the gulf war, Saddam Houssein was compared to
Hitler, an analogy which was based mainly on his moustache. Now, Assad
is compared to Hitler based on the moustache analogy Assad is Saddam
is Hitler. Barnea, the senior reporter who accompanies Barak in
his travels, gives a good illustration of the tones with which the media
accompanied the negotiations with Syria. Already at the first meeting in
Washington all we heard was how A-Shara is primitive, doesn't understand
the feelings of the Israelis, and is not a serious candidate for peace
If anyone in Israel really intended to bring about some kind of a
historic compromise with Syria, there was not a single evidence for
this intention, either in the media or in the formal documents.