Syrian Offer of Talks Throws A Wrench Into Sharon’s Plans


By Ofer Shelah

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — As if he didn’t have enough problems, what with mounting right-wing opposition to his disengagement plan, Palestinian terrorism stirring anew and his governing coalition in turmoil, Prime Minister Sharon now has trouble on his northern front. Syria, Israel’s most intractable foe, is offering to make peace.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the peace offer last week in a meeting with a group of visiting Americans, including a congressman and two former ambassadors. It was the latest in a series of peace overtures Assad has sent in the past year, and it included what the American visitors said could be a significant softening of his earlier positions.

Sharon is having none of it. In a series of public statements since the Americans’ September 4 meeting with Assad, Sharon and his aides have dismissed the Syrian peace offer as “not serious.” They are accusing Syria of continuing to “influence terror,” and are insisting that it crack down on Palestinian terrorist groups and Hezbollah before Israel will consider peace talks. Assad reportedly told the visiting Americans he would crack down on the terrorists only as part of an overall peace deal.

Sharon’s opposition to the Syrian opening appears at least partly political. The prime minister’s attention right now is taken up entirely with his Gaza disengagement plan. His security Cabinet’s very last decision of the Jewish year was to ratify the principles for compensating settlers to be evacuated. The plan faces fierce opposition from settlers and their allies, who mobilized a massive demonstration in Jerusalem on Sunday. Sharon is said to believe it would be politically impossible to pursue a withdrawal on the Syrian front at the same time.

Politics aside, though, Sharon’s position is not new. He has long opposed withdrawal from the Golan on security grounds. In an interview this week with Ha’aretz, Sharon said he had been urged to consider a Syrian deal last November by White House aide Elliott Abrams, but he turned it down flat, producing his disengagement plan as an alternative. He also criticized the last four Israeli prime ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, for pursuing a Syrian peace deal.

Sharon’s tough stance puts him at odds with his top military officers, who have openly and repeatedly urged the government to consider the Syrian overtures. The chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, got a tongue-lashing from Sharon last January after he told a Knesset committee that Syria’s peace overtures “should be taken seriously.” Last month, the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, upped the ante, telling an interviewer that Israel could defend itself without the Golan Heights and would be safer with a peace treaty with Syria.

Few Israelis believe Syria is acting out of generosity. Damascus is under tremendous pressure from Washington. American officials still suspect that some of Saddam Hussein’s missing weapons of mass destruction found their way across the border into Syria. Ze’evi-Farkash, the Israeli intelligence chief, has created a special team to identify the cargo of suspicious convoys that he claims made their way from Iraq to Syria just before the American attack. So far, Syria has found nothing.

Syria’s troubles are not only with the United States. Its connections with Hezbollah and its de-facto occupation of Lebanon are coming under mounting international fire, culminating in a vote last week by the United Nations Security Council calling for the withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon.

These pressures seem to be driving Assad’s recent peace offers. He first reached out last December, in an interview with The New York Times. He repeated the offer in January to a visiting U.S. senator, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson. It was the meeting with Nelson that led to Sharon’s spat with Ze’evi-Farkash.

Assad’s most recent overture came during a lengthy meeting this month with three visiting Americans, California GOP Rep. Darrell Issa and former ambassadors Martin Indyk and Edward Gabriel. According to Indyk and Gabriel, who were interviewed afterward in Israeli and Lebanese newspapers, Assad hinted to them that he would no longer insist that new peace talks begin where they left off in 2000, a longstanding Syrian condition that Sharon flatly rejects.

In yet another surprise, Assad met with Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns on September 11 and told him that “Syria will not remain in Lebanon forever.”

The clash between hardline politicians and the more dovish army brass in Israel is not new. Numerous ranking army officers took part in the 1999 negotiations between Barak and Syrian leaders, which nearly resulted in a peace treaty. Some of them now believe that Barak missed out on a historic chance to sign an agreement with the late president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

Most of the top brass agrees with the view put forward by Bill Clinton in his book, “My Life”: that Barak got cold feet because of opinion polls showing the Israeli public opposed the territorial price demanded by the Syrians. Damascus had insisted that a peace agreement return Israel not to the pre-1967 border, but to the troop positions of June 4, 1967 — effectively ratifying Syria encroachments over the decades that brought their troops to the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Those few hundred extra yards, defense officials say, were all that prevented Israel from closing a “ring of peace” around its borders, surrounding it with neighbors with whom it is at peace. Such a situation, they add, also might have changed things completely on the Palestinian front.

This feeling was made clear by the chief of staff in his controversial August 13 interview in Yediot Aharonot. “If you ask me theoretically whether it is possible to reach a balanced agreement with Syria,” Ya’alon said, “I would say that from a strictly military point of view it is possible to give up the Golan Heights as part of an agreement.” Although Ya’alon carefully phrased his words in strictly military terms, he was immediately attacked for mixing into politics. “The words of the chief of staff strengthen terrorists,” claimed Knesset member Arie Eldad of the right-wing National Union party.

Israel regards Syria as a leading sponsor of terrorism, charging that it plays host to the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. After the double suicide bombing in Beer Sheva three weeks ago both Ya’alon and his boss, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, blamed Damascus. Their suspicions were endorsed last week by a top American official, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told Egyptian television that Syria “does bear some responsibility.” The pressure is bearing fruit; top Damascus-based Hamas leaders, including Khaled Mashal, the movement’s top “external” leader, have disappeared and are believed to be in hiding.

Sharon’s dismissal of the Syrian opening follows an old Israeli custom. Israel has traditionally shown little interest in negotiating with its foes when they seem weak, seeing no reason to give ground if it isn’t forced to.

Syria is definitely weak right now. In addition to American and U.N. pressure, Bashar faces internal pressure from critics who see him as young and inexperienced. Regionally, the Syrian army poses little threat, especially since the American invasion of Iraq, which left Syria encircled by American and Israeli troops and ended Israel’s fears of a so-called “eastern front” against it.

For many Israelis, though, the current state of negotiations evokes painful memories from the early 1970s. Back then the Arabs seemed weak, following their defeat in the Six-Day War of June 1967. American and U.N. efforts to broker a settlement were met with haughty resistance from Golda Meir’s government, which suspected Egyptian intentions and preferred to sit tight. A peace agreement was finally reached only after 2,600 Israelis lost their lives in the Yom Kippur War.

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