In an interview conducted by Ari Shavit with national security adviser Dr. Uzi Arad (Haaretz Magazine, July 10, 2009), we find the following two references to negotiations on the Golan Heights: to the legal-diplomatic issue ("There is no such thing," Arad's reference to the paper "deposited" by Yitzhak Rabin with the U.S. secretary of state, in which he undertook to withdraw from the Golan Heights in the event of a peace treaty) and to the substantive issue ("territorial compromise" in the Golan). The two issues are intricately connected.
According to Arad, the guarantee left by prime minister Rabin with Warren Christopher (which expressed a readiness to withdraw completely from the Golan in return for the peace and security package that Israel demanded) does not constitute an impediment to achieving an agreement based on a partial withdrawal from the Golan, since in 1996, Christopher returned the deposit at the request of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then (as he is now) prime minister.
These things are substantively correct, but they are not precise. In September 1996, the secretary of state did indeed write an official reply to a letter he received from the prime minister. Christopher stated that there was no binding legal validity to anything that had been said and agreed upon between Israel and Syria during the previous four years. This statement related to remarks made and understandings reached during some four years of negotiations between Israel and Syria. The statement in itself is not surprising, since under circumstances like these, when partial agreement of some kind is reached, the sides, or one of the sides, take care to stress that "nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon."
Truth be told, however, the issue here is not one of law, nor does it relate to whether or not a commitment that was made is valid. Rabin opted for the "deposit" technique so as to extricate the negotiations with Syria from the stalemate that had been created by president Hafez Assad's ultimative demand that Syria receive an Israeli commitment to a full withdrawal from the Golan before he entered into negotiations with Israel.
Rabin knew in August 1993 that he had the Palestinian option (Oslo), and before finally adopting it, he felt that he had to know whether he also had an alternative possibility for progress with the Syrians. Four out of the five prime ministers who succeeded him (Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) chose a similar, if not identical, technique when they decided to enter into serious negotiations with Syria. Ariel Sharon was the only prime minister during this period who did not show interest in negotiations of this kind.
If the "deposit" in its various forms does not have binding legal validity, what is its significance? It expressed the recognition of five Israeli prime ministers that Syria, whether led by the senior Assad or his son, Bashar, would not sign a peace with Israel without a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. What is the significance of a peace of this kind? Where exactly would the border be drawn between the countries? What kind of security arrangements would there be and how would Israeli sovereignty over Lake Kinneret be ensured? All of these were issues that were supposed to be clarified in the negotiations after the deposit was made.
Right now the issue of negotiations with Syria does not hold one of the top places on the diplomatic agenda. The Obama administration is giving clear priority to dealing at an early stage with the Palestinian issue. But at some point, the question of relations with Syria will come up. In anticipation of that moment, the Netanyahu government will have to make decisions that are both procedural (whether to agree to Syria's demand for indirect negotiations through the mediation of Turkey, or to insist on direct negotiations under the aegis of the Americans) and substantive.
It is possible that the unequivocal assertion of the national security adviser - that the only acceptable arrangement from Israel's point of view would be an arrangement based on a partial withdrawal - is a tactical move, a kind of setting up of a bargaining position. But beyond the tactics lies substance. And the substance is that Bashar Assad's Syria will not agree to any arrangement that is not based on a complete withdrawal. If Netanyahu and his government succeed in refuting this accepted declaration and signing a peace treaty with Syria that leaves the Golan in Israeli hands, I shall be the first to take my hat off to them.
Prof. Itamar Rabinovich was Israel's ambassador to the United States and the head of the negotiating team with Syria.