By Ali Badwan
As the negotiations focus is fixed firmly on what is happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians, news is filtering through of some unexpected moves by the US administration to kick-start the long stalled Israel-Syria peace talks. Senator George Mitchell's visit to Damascus to meet Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, coinciding with shuttle visits to the region by a French envoy, suggests that something is afoot. That this is Mr. Mitchell's first trip to Damascus in 18 months, during which he has visited other capitals in the region more than twenty times adds to the speculation.
But what are the chances of the US and French efforts being successful? It is ten years since the last round of direct Syrian-Israeli talks, which were held in America. At that time, President Assad's late father was at the helm in Damascus. Those following the negotiations between Syria and Israel since the Madrid Conference in 1991 realize the enormous complexities facing negotiators even though more than 80% of the issues raised during Yitzhak Rabin's premiership in Israel have been resolved; the main stumbling block is the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Syria-Israel talks are also, of course, linked inextricably it seems to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as the regional roles the protagonists view for themselves.
Rabin's tactic was based on looking at everything from mutual security arrangements to the peace dividends without ever quite tackling the thorny issue of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. His successor, Labour's Ehud Barak, followed the same path despite the fact that Rabin suggested to the US government that his country would consider a pull-back to the borders of 4 June 1967.
The second round of Syrian-Israeli talks took place in 1995 under Rabin and Peres, and then during Benjamin Netanyahu's first stint as Israel's Prime Minister. The three proposals presented for consideration were contrary to international resolutions and bypassed the usual requirements for a comprehensive peace. They moved in essence straight to a Syria-Lebanon-Israel trilateral agreement to normalise full relations, open embassies, free movement of capital and personnel, tourism and diplomatic relations with the Arab world. The talk also shifted perceptibly from "withdrawal from the Golan" to "withdrawal in the Golan".
Ehud Barak's first coalition government, which followed Netanyahu's first term of office, took the same direction, leaving the issue in mid-air, disappointing those who were pushing for painful concessions from Syria. The three options presented by Israel, but rejected by Syria, were as follows:
i. Israeli withdrawal to the British Mandate border between Palestine and present (not historic) Syria; that is, to the "March 1923" border drawn by the French and British occupation authorities according to the 1916 secret Sykes Picot Agreement maps and their subsequent amendments. These were used in the first Camp David agreement between Egypt and the Jewish state, and would mean an Israeli withdrawal within the Golan and not from the Golan Heights. In this option Israel presented itself as the only legitimate heir to mandate Palestine, giving it the possibility of annexing large sections of the Golan Heights, specifically designated "Area B" land on the Palestinian side of the Golan, including the city of Hamma and the entire eastern shore of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee). Israel relied on the terms of the first Camp David accord, signed with Egypt, as an example of Israeli forces withdrawing to international lines between mandate Palestine and the Jewish State, leaving the Gaza Strip under its control as well as a long strip of Egyptian land from Rafah to Eilat. Israel had seized this in 1949, an area equal to one and a half times the area of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
ii. A land swap plus land leases to ensure the flow of Golan water to Israel. Israel proposed that Syria redraw its borders on completely new lines (neither 1923 nor 1967) to guarantee Israeli access to the water, security and control of the Palestinian Golan Heights and vital areas of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. The proposal denied Syria of access to the strip of land on the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias and its natural right to take advantage of its water and fish. It also removed Syrian sovereignty over the water springs on the south-western slopes of Mount Hermon-Sheikh.
iii. The third proposal was the worst, stemming from the consideration that the land of the Golan is "disputed" territory being negotiated with Syria while referring to security, water and strategic necessities for the Jewish state. This followed the Oslo Agreement of 1993 in which the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip were considered to be "disputed territories". Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government followed this with a decision of the Israeli Knesset making a withdrawal from the Golan dependent on the consent of more than eighty of the parliament's 120 members.
On December 7th, 1999 Syria told US President Bill Clinton of its readiness to resume peace talks with Israel. The Clinton administration then presented a document to the two sides, Syria and Israel; this summarised the issues to be decided on. This sort of document is a procedural tactic used by US governments when dealing with the issues pertaining to conflict. It included America's evaluation of what had taken place since the beginning of negotiations in 1996.
The American document was biased and focused on the question of land, borders and the Israeli demand for an early warning station on Mount Hermon; it also rejected what it regarded as imbalanced security measures and water issues.
Syria's comments and observations about this document, along with suggested amendments, included the fundamental guarantees sought to protect its rights and regional status. Israel was clearly seeking to undermine any future role for Syria in the Middle East. Policy-makers in Damascus realised that you cannot separate the restoration of land from a regional role and the return of a few square kilometres of land between the 1923 and 1967 borders cannot be bartered for a much larger area in the future.
By the time the negotiations convened in West Virginia in 2000, there was an impasse created by the terms of the US document and direct talks were put on hold, where they have remained to this day.
In this context, it could be interpreted that the freezing of the negotiating process is in itself part of the negotiating process because it demonstrates Syria's refusal to renounce its internationally-recognised rights to regain all of its land up to the June 1967 border. That would be consistent with the regional balance of power between Arab countries and the colonial expansionist aims of the Jewish state.
As negotiations appear to be on the agenda again, with the visit of the US and French envoys to Damascus, Israel should not rely on the indirect talks brokered by Turkey. They did not bring anything new; in fact, they were only intended to direct matters back to square one.
Source: Qatari newspaper
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