Gidon D. Remba reviews the gains apparently won for Israel in back-channel talks with Syria and their torpedoing by Bush administration hostility toward Syria and its stranglehold on the current Israeli government. The following is from Gidon D. Remba’s article, “Look Who’s Pressuring Israel,” published January 25, in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle:
…[W]e learn from Ha’aretz’s chief diplomatic correspondent Akiva Eldar that a series of secret unofficial meetings were conducted in Europe between September 2004 and July 2006 between Syrians and Israelis. The Israeli negotiator, former Israel Foreign Ministry director-general Dr. Alon Liel, met with Abe Suleiman, a Syrian-American who is close to Syrian President Bashar Assad. They were brought together by Geoffrey Aronson, an American analyst from the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, under the auspices of the government of Switzerland, represented by Nicholas Lang of the Swiss Foreign Ministry. Their meetings produced a breakthrough framework for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, resolving many of the issues which had derailed the official talks under Barak and Bashar Assad’s father. The Syrian representative showed flexibility on many of the most intractable issues:
• Much of the Golan Heights would become a park administered by Syrian civilian authorities, with Israelis free to visit during daytime without visas.
• The entire Golan would become a demilitarized zone, and areas of reduced military forces would be created on both sides of the Golan in Syria and Israel at a 4:1 ratio in Israel’s favor.
• The time-table for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan, which was not finalized, might be extended beyond five years.
• Israel would control the use of water in the upper Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.
• The US would operate an early warning station on Mt. Hermon.
Other accounts in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv indicate that Syria may agree to Israel holding 20% of the Golan, where two-thirds of Israeli residents live, in exchange for an equal land swap. Eldar reports that “The European mediator and the Syrian representative in the discussions held eight separate meetings with senior Syrian officials, including Vice President Farouk Shara, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and a Syrian intelligence officer with the rank of ‘general.’” The former Israeli diplomat kept top brass in Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office abreast of developments in the talks, while the Syrian-American negotiator informed high-ranking US officials, who updated Vice President Dick Cheney. The Syrian representative even traveled to Jerusalem and met with top figures in Israel’s Foreign Ministry to convey Syria’s readiness for a peace treaty with Israel. Like Egypt a generation ago, an increasingly economically distressed Syria, whose proven oil reserves will run out within the decade without a major infusion of foreign capital, is seeking a lifeline and rapprochement with the West.
The Syrian representative agreed that Syria would end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and “distance itself from Iran” under a peace treaty with Israel. Former Israeli cabinet ministers and current Knesset members from several parties recently heard a similar offer from President Assad’s legal advisor, Riad Daoudi, at the Madrid + 15 conference, which commemorated the 15-year anniversary of the historic 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli Peace Conference, convened by President Bush’s father. Syria would also promote a solution to the conflict in Iraq, using its influence to foster an agreement between Sunni and Shia militia and political leaders. Syria would further contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum by helping to settle the Palestinian refugee problem on terms acceptable to Israel. In an interview with the German magazine Spiegel on Sept. 24, 2006, Assad, remarkably, adopted Israel’s view that the Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, not to Israel.
Leaving no doubt of the seriousness with which the Syrian leadership took these “Track 2” talks, Suleiman attended a final meeting with his Israeli interlocutor in the midst of this summer’s Lebanon war, and conveyed a request from the Syrian government for a secret meeting with the director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office, to be attended by a Syrian deputy minister and a high-level US diplomat. Israel rejected the Syrian request. Lang, the Swiss mediator, met recently with Prime Minister Olmert’s chief of staff, and presented him the draft Syrian-Israeli agreement. Olmert’s advisor told him that Israel was not interested.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in November, I wondered whether AIPAC would work to promote a US-Israeli peace initiative with Syria or the Palestinians. AIPAC’s Israel spokesperson responded on November 23rd in Ha’aretz that “AIPAC’s mandate is not to pressure the Israeli government to follow a particular course.” Reading these words, I scratched my head. Who said anything about “pressure?” In reality, the Bush Administration is pressuring the Israeli government to refuse peace talks with Syria, according to the testimony of Prime Minister Olmert, his advisors and cabinet ministers. AIPAC, and its allies in the organized Jewish community, who rush to loudly protest any time there is a whiff of US pressure on Israel in favor of a peace initiative, has absolutely nothing to say when the White House blocks Israel from talking with Syria….
Read Gidon Remba’s entire article at his “Tough Dove-Israel” Website.