Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of June 9, 1999

The Syrian trap

By Moshe Zak

Today, 32 years ago, the IDF burst onto the Golan Heights. Syria was the last Arab country to enter the Six Day War, and is also the last in the line to make peace with Israel. There isn't anyone in Israel presently suggesting a unilateral withdrawal from the Golan, but the Syrians imagine such a possibility. That's the meaning of their demand that Israel commit itself in writing to a withdrawal to the June 1967 border as a precondition to negotiations. The fact is that Syria has already received several Israeli undertakings of a retreat from the Golan in exchange for comprehensive peace.

Syria wouldn't need a written commitment from Israel if it really intended to pay for the withdrawal in the coin of peace. But Damascus aims to get an undertaking from Israel to withdraw unconditionally from the Golan without any quid pro quo. President Hafez Assad doesn't reveal his reasons, but apparently his hidden intention is not to sign a peace treaty with Israel, unlike Anwar Sadat and King Hussein.

It's possible that after he has an Israeli commitment to a total withdrawal, he will wriggle out of his obligation to sign a peace treaty, as he did in May 1974 when he asked an Egyptian general to sign the Golan disengagement agreement instead of the Syrian representative.

Already on June 19, 1967, 10 days after the IDF entered Kuneitra, Israel informed the Americans that it was willing to discuss a peace treaty with Syria on the basis of the international border. The same was true for Egypt. The US was indiscreet and informed the Syrians and Egyptians of the contents of the Israeli proposal, but the Syrian leaders were in no hurry to accept the generous Israeli proposal.

After the Yom Kippur War, Israel tried to open negotiations with Syria on the basis of Israeli recognition of Syrian sovereignty over all the Golan Heights, on condition that the territory be leased to Israel. The Syrians were unwilling even to hear of such a suggestion. In the summer of 1976, Israel officially made an offer to Assad, via the Americans, to make a meaningful withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for a non- belligerence agreement. The Syrian leader dismissed the proposal, even though shortly before, Assad had used the Americans and Jordan's Hussein to reach a secret understanding with Israel on the "red line" for deployment of the Syrian army in southern Lebanon.

Finally, Israel's most recent attempt: the hypothetical question that Yitzhak Rabin put to Assad via the Americans: If Israel withdrew completely from the Golan, what kind of peace would Syria be prepared to offer Israel in return?

THE Syrians understood this question as an unambiguous Israeli undertaking to make a complete withdrawal, and asked to receive it in writing, while refusing Israel's conditions. The Americans made it clear that Rabin's hypothetical question wasn't to be considered as a promise, but the Syrians insisted that it meant a commitment to total withdrawal.

As Israeli society displays more signs of impatience concerning the evacuation of southern Lebanon, Syria's patience concerning the Golan increases. The Syrian leaders act as if they have all the time in the world to gain the commitment they want from Israel. That's why Damascus was quick to deny this week a report that Assad had sent a message to Ehud Barak before the elections that he would be flexible in negotiations with Israel.

Indeed, the Syrians don't need to be flexible. After this week's coalition negotiations, they concluded that Israel has no options of maneuvering, and that Israel is willing to part with its strategic assets on the Golan in order to be free of the burden of the IDF presence in Lebanon. The Syrians concluded that they don't have to make a clear promise to give anything in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

In talks with diplomats, Assad makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't accept the international border between Syria and Israel, since it is the outcome of an imperialist conspiracy between the French and the British. This is a signal of additional territorial demands, which will be made in the future.

Negotiations with Syria, therefore, should not depend on indirect mediators and hazy formulas. We must aim for direct negotiations without preconditions, and therefore we must be very careful, even if evacuating Lebanon is urgent.

(c) Jerusalem Post 1999


Moshe Zak is a veteran journalist that comments on current affairs.

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