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Commentary | ASSAD AND BARAK --EYES ON THE PRIZE

Syria's One Issue: the Border

The failure to reach a settlement by not agreeing to pre-1967 borders works in Barak's favor.

March 30, 2000|ERIC ROULEAU | Eric Rouleau, a journalist and author of several books on Arab-Israeli relations, served as the French ambassador to Turkey from 1988 to 1991, ambassador-at-large for the French government from 1986 to 1988, and as French ambassador to Tunisia from 1985 to 1986

PARIS — The skeptics were right. President Clinton could not have restarted the Israeli-Syrian talks. He lacked the only card that would have allowed him to unblock the situation: Ehud Barak's explicit commitment to return to Syria the entire territory Israel conquered during the June 1967 war.

It has been well-known for three decades that Syria would not even consider a settlement that falls short of a return to the Israeli-Syrian pre-war border. This was nothing less than a Syrian national objective, a solemn commitment by President Hafez Assad to the Syrian people. He refused to negotiate with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin until Rabin gave in to this demand. Shimon Peres reiterated the commitment after Rabin's assassination in November 1995. The Syrians would not have agreed to the new round of talks in January 2000 if they had not been led to believe that Barak was prepared to make the same commitment.

The Syrians believe they were tricked at Shepherdstown. The agreement was that negotiations on all outstanding issues, including borders, would be held simultaneously within separate committees set up for the occasion. But in practice, the Israeli delegates dragged their feet in the talks on the borders and forged ahead on the other issues--security, dividing the water resources, full normalization, etc. Important progress was made in these areas, as was clear in the confidential "draft agreement" leaked to the Israeli press shortly after the Shepherdstown round ended in January. The Israeli leak was undoubtedly intended to reassure the Israeli public that Barak had skillfully extracted concessions without a territorial quid pro quo, but Assad was humiliated.

According to a member of the Syrian delegation, Assad resolved not to fall into the trap a second time. He did not want to run the risk of "an Oslo-like accord that would make him hostage to Israel." Hence his insistence that Barak publicly recognize the pre-war June 4, 1967, lines before the talks resumed.

According to well-placed Syrian sources, Assad went to Geneva in the expectation that Clinton would bring, if not a positive, at least an encouraging response from the Israeli prime minister. Instead, the American president showed him a map where the border ran between the June 4, 1967, lines and the international frontier established in 1923 by France and Britain, the colonial powers of the time. The most important border change in Clinton's draft, which had received the go-ahead from Barak, was to deprive Syria of the access it had enjoyed before 1967 to the Sea of Galilee, a vital source of water.

Faced with Assad's categorical refusal even to consider this proposal, according to the same Syrian source, Clinton tried to persuade him to be flexible in light of Barak's domestic constraints and the fragility of his coalition, where only a minority supports full withdrawal from the Golan. The Syrians left Geneva convinced that Israel was unable to pay the price required for peace.

In fact, a settlement with Syria is neither vital nor urgent for Barak. The absence of an agreement in no way threatens his government or Israel's security. Indeed, postponing negotiations until after the U.S. presidential elections would probably be in his interest: Whoever succeeds Clinton will have no reason to speed up the process and for that reason will surely be tougher on Syria than Clinton has been.

Meanwhile, Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, planned for July 7 at the latest, will deprive Syria of an important bargaining chip. Damascus will no longer be able to utilize Hezbollah, whose armed groups will lose their raison d'etre after the Israeli forces pull back to the international frontier. Attacks will be opposed by the Lebanese, anxious to protect themselves against Israel's inevitable reprisals, and by the international community led by the United States. Moreover, the end of the Israeli occupation of the south is bound to increase pressures on Syria to withdraw its own troops from Lebanon.

If such is Barak's calculation, the "failure" of the Geneva meeting may turn out to be a major political-diplomatic victory for him: He buys time in the face of domestic resistance, strengthens his own position and corners Syria--which gets all the blame.

What Barak would not achieve is the essential: the peace with the Arab world that he promised his electorate.

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