The not-so-great interruption

02 February 2007
It emerged recently that Israel and Syria had held peace talks - and there are strong suggestions that they failed because of US hostility. John Gittings reports.
The Iraq Study Group advised the Bush administration to bring Syria and Iran into the diplomatic picture and Britain also claims to be keen on promoting dialogue with Iraq's neighbours. So the story of recent contacts between Israel and Syria, which might have led to a breakthrough peace agreement, is of huge interest - as, regrettably, is the hostility displayed by the US which seems to have scuppered the deal. A diplomatic turn-around on this scale would dramatically improve the climate in the Middle East and pave the way for a much wider dialogue which could then work in reverse: US-Syrian talks, as James Baker argued on Tuesday, could lead to an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough. At a time when we are drifting towards a new, probably even more disastrous war, we need to be fully alert to the potential alternatives for peace, however hard it may be to achieve. And if Tony Blair still believes that he has a special role in the Middle East, now is his chance: convince George Bush that confrontation is not the answer, and offer his good services to revive the Israeli-Syrian dialogue. First, we need to be better informed on a story that has been mostly under-reported: here for the Comment is free record, is a resume taken mainly from the Israeli press and particularly from the well-informed Ha'aretz. This back-channel negotiation began in January 2004 when President Bashar Assad visited Turkey - and stayed at the same hotel as Dr Alon Liel, the former Israeli foreign ministry director general. The Syrians asked Turkey to assist, and Prime Minister Sharon approved on condition these were regarded as "talks" rather than "negotiations". These talks covered the Golan Heights, water, borders, demilitarised zones, and Syria's position on all other important issues. In autumn 2004 the dialogue shifted to Switzerland: a final unsigned document - known in the diplomatic trade as a "non-document" - was reached in August 2005 and only changed slightly in subsequent contacts up to July 2006. The full text was reprinted in Ha'aretz on 16 January. As summarised by its correspondent Akiva Eldar, the main points are as follows: 1. An agreement of principles will be signed between the two countries, and following the fulfilment of all commitments, a peace agreement will be signed. 2. As part of the agreement on principles, Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of June 4 1967. The timetable for the withdrawal remained open: Syria demanded the pullout be carried out over a five-year period, while Israel asked for the withdrawal to be spread out over 15 years. 3. At the buffer zone, along Lake Kinneret, a park will be set up for joint use by Israelis and Syrians. The park will cover a significant portion of the Golan Heights. Israelis will be free to access the park and their presence will not be dependent on Syrian approval. 4. Israel will retain control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret. 5. The border area will be demilitarised along a 1:4 ratio (in terms of territory) in Israel's favour. 6. According to the terms, Syria will also agree to end its support for Hizbullah and Hamas and will distance itself from Iran. 7. The document is described as a "non-paper", a document of understandings that is not signed and lacks legal standing - its nature is political. The contacts ended after the Syrians demanded an end to meetings on an unofficial level and called for a secret meeting at the level of deputy minister, on the Syrian side, with an Israeli official at the rank of a ministry's director general, including the participation of a senior American official. Israel did not agree to this Syrian request. The Syrian representative in the talks, Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, an American citizen, had visited Jerusalem and delivered a message to senior officials at the foreign ministry regarding the Syrian wish for an agreement with Israel. The Syrians also asked for help in improving their relations with the United States, and particularly in lifting the American embargo on Syria. It also emerged that one of the Syrian messages to Israel had to do with the ties between Damascus and Tehran, asserting that the Assad regime (although based on the Alawi Shia minority) considers itself to be an integral part of the Sunni world and is particularly opposed to Iran's policy in Iraq. A senior Syrian official stressed that a peace agreement with Israel will enable Syria to distance itself from Iran. Nothing has come of the long talks or the agreement and both Syria and Israel have now denied that the talks ever occurred. Clearly this is very sensitive ground politically for both sides (literally in the case of the Golan Heights), and back-channel negotiations of this kind often founder. But there are strong suggestions that the main reason for the failure this time has been American hostility to the entire enterprise. 1. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has said bluntly that "I believe America is preventing (Olmert) from achieving peace with Syria." Mubarak urged Olmert "Why say no to a peace offering?" he asked. (Gulf Times, January 6, quoting Mubarak's interview inYedioth Ahronoth). 2. Ha'aretz (January 16) claims that the Israeli explanation is that "the Americans are not prepared to hear about contact with Syria". C David Welch, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs was at the final meeting in August 2005, present at Syrian request. According to senior officials in Washington, Vice-President Cheney was also kept in the picture. 3. "What is new," writes Michael Oren, historian and Shalem Centre fellow, "is Washington's apparent opposition to a Syrian-Israeli accord and the possibility that Israel, by seeking peace with one of its Arab neighbours, risks precipitating a crisis with the United States" (International Herald Tribune, 24 January). 4. On January 28 a group of important Israeli ex-officials met publicly in Jaffa and called the Israeli response "an irresponsible gamble" since it had made Dick Cheney arbiter of Israeli national interests. They included former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, former Shin Bet chief Ya'akov Perry, former directors of the foreign ministry David Kimche and the negotiator Alon Liel. "Everything has changed," Liel told the Jerusalem Post (January 31). "Syria is ready to change its orientation ... This has to be stressed to the Americans."