A Matter of a Few Dozen Meters

Akiva Eldar
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Akiva Eldar

Dan Meridor, who was Yitzhak Shamir's confidant, told Channel 10 this week that Shamir, too, was completely serious about the possibility of an accord with Syria. He says that in 1991, Shamir asked the Americans to add Syria to the Madrid Conference. Meridor also says that Uri Saguy, who was then head of Military Intelligence, convinced Shamir that the first Gulf War had shifted the regional balance of powers and created ideal conditions for negotiations with Syria. But then Shamir had to make way for Yitzhak Rabin.

Though he hasn't been in uniform for some time, Saguy never abandoned the Syrian channel. From time to time, he gets on a plane, in his current capacity as the defense minister's adviser on Syrian affairs, and meets with the people whom Assad, Sr., and then Assad, Jr. entrusted with the Israeli portfolio.

The Syrians are very familiar with his positions. They've read the interviews he gave Haaretz in the past year. In one, Saguy said that at the Shepherdstown talks with Syria in January 2000, then prime minister Ehud Barak got cold feet and missed a historic opportunity for peace with the neighbor to the north.

In the current contacts with Damascus, Saguy persuaded the senior political echelon to forgo the hopeless demand that Syria commit from the outset to cut off its ties with Iran. He reminded them that in the negotiations in 2000, Barak and then U.S. president Bill Clinton did not make this demand of the Syrians. They were satisfied that Syria's representative at the talks, then foreign minister Farouk Shara, did not object to the Shepherdstown document containing a commitment from each of the parties "to abstain from cooperation with a third party in a hostile alliance of a military nature."

Nor did the Syrians protest the section stating each party would ensure its territory "will not serve the military forces of a third party, under circumstances that would adversely affect the other party's security." Hence, if it weren't for its stubborn insistence on a few dozen meters on the eastern bank of the Kinneret, it's quite possible that Israel would now be holding a peace contract mandating that Syria prevent the infiltration and presence of organizations that threaten Israel.

An addendum to the draft agreement designated certain areas on the Israel-Syria border where the type of forces and quantities of weapons would be limited. Some of this area was supposed to be turned into a demilitarized zone. Syria demanded the demilitarization be of equal scope on either side of the border, but did not request any changes to the section stipulating that the parties would establish full diplomatic and economic ties and facilitate full freedom of movement between them. In all the secret and semi-official contacts between them in the eight years since, there does not seem to have been any hardening of the Syrian position. On the unofficial channel that was going on until the summer of 2005, with Swiss mediation, the Syrians even agreed to have a "peace park" opened for Israeli tourists in the disputed area between the international border and the June 4, 1967 lines.

The gap between these two lines has shrunk over time. Because of changes in the level of Lake Kinneret, the lake's present coastline is not the same as it was in 1967. Because of this natural phenomenon, even if Israel accedes to Syria's demand and recognizes its sovereignty over the area it controlled prior to the Six-Day War (the June 4, 1967 lines), the northeast strip of coastline would remain under Israeli control. For the Syrians, it would actually be preferable to demand, in regard to this section, sovereignty up to the international border. This border passes 10 meters from the shoreline, so that a lower level of the Kinneret leaves more territory under their sovereignty.

Had George Bush been ready to closet himself for a few days of intensive talks with Menachem Begin and Hafez Assad's successors, perhaps that would have been enough to enable him to boast of one peace agreement. But in Bush's circle, they're not too thrilled - to put it mildly- with the reports from Turkey about a renewal of the negotiations.

This week, an Arab newspaper reported that Israel and Syria, in their contacts, had reached an agreement on 85 percent of the issues. But Saguy believes a full agreement can't be reached until the Americans give the green light.

According to a study soon to be published in Hebrew as part of a collection by Tel Hai College ("Hawk with an Olive Branch: Yigal Allon and his Attitude Toward the Golan Heights and Settlement there, 1967-1979"), this isn't the first time that the Americans are missing an opportunity to bring Israel and Syria closer together. Dr. Yigal Kipnis of the Hebrew University, who specializes in the geography and history of the Golan Heights, says in the study that the United States never informed Syria and Egypt of the Israeli government decision of June 19, 1967, to the effect that Israel was prepared to withdraw to the international border in return for a peace agreement. Kipnis, a resident of Ma'aleh Gamla in the Golan, pored through archives in the United States and found that the administration also had not reported on this decision to its allies or to the Soviet Union, which at the time represented Egypt and Syria in the diplomatic arena.

Then U.S. president Lyndon Johnson met on June 23, 1967 in New York with the Russian premier, Alexei Kosygin, but in the records of the meeting there is no mention of the Israeli initiative. Israel's political leaders, who received a report about the content of the meetings, interpreted this as a rejection of the proposal. Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed in November of that year, enabled Israel to put the decision into the deep freeze.

The fear of international pressure to withdraw from the Golan Heights without a peace agreement prompted then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his senior ministers to create "facts on the ground" and build settlements on the Golan Heights. In 1969, after Eshkol's death, Allon, the deputy prime minister and chairman of the ministerial committee on settlement affairs, was left with the central authority in this process. Allon did move swiftly to settle the Jordan Rift Valley and Mount Hebron, but he prevented a similar discussion concerning the Golan, seeing to it that for two years, no new communities were established there.

Allon's position regarding the Golan derived from his recognition that the peace border would be the international border. In interviews recorded in the state archive, Allon said that, unlike the West Bank, it would be difficult to annex Syrian territory to Israel and therefore he proposed the establishment in the Golan of a Druze republic "that would maintain an economic, military and diplomatic alliance with Israel." In conversations quoted by Kipnis in his study, Allon predicted that the Soviet Union, Syria's ally, would support his idea.

While the "Allon Plan" became the basis for Israeli settlement in the West Bank, the idea of a Druze state in the Golan was not taken seriously. Allon himself remarked at a public event about then defense minister Moshe Dayan's view of the plan: "Dayan rejected it with disdain, [saying] 'I ask Yigal's forgiveness if we didn't take Jabal Druze.'"

In August 1967, Allon suggested to Eshkol that Israel encourage a Druze revolt in Syria that would lead to the establishment of their state. Later, he tried to mobilize the Druze in the Golan for his plan, with the help of one of their leaders, Kamal Kanj of Majdal Shams who, at the behest of Israeli intelligence, met with Syrian Druze representatives in Rome. When it emerged that he also used to travel secretly to Syria to update Syrian intelligence on Israel's intentions, Kanj was charged with espionage and given a long prison sentence, though he was soon released.

After the Yom Kippur War and the signing of the separation of forces agreements, Allon, who was foreign minister in the Rabin government, tried to get a peace process going between Israel and Syria. He proposed that Israel execute a further withdrawal in the Golan, even before the signing of a full peace agreement. He related that in a talk with then U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, it was agreed that the best move would be "to inform the Arab capitals that in exchange for an end to the state of war, with both Syria and Egypt, Israel would carry out a withdrawal not up to the Mandatory border, and the Arabs would not continue to demand normalization of relations, but rather an end to the state of war.