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The Newly Declassified Revelations About Netanyahu, Clinton and Syria's Assad

A newly declassified memo reveals how far Netanyahu was willing to go to make peace with Syria's Hafez Assad – and the efforts the Israeli prime minister invested to cover his traces

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden of the White House
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden of the White HouseCredit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Summertime, and the living is easy. Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, goes to Washington for his first meeting with President Bill Clinton. Born in the mid-1940’s, three years apart, both still under 50, educated in elite East Coast universities, they seemed to share a common generational and cultural background, regardless of Clinton’s bond with the martyred Yitzhak Rabin.

Israel's State Archive has just released the notes of that first Bill-and-Bibi chat, which took place on June 9th, 1996. They reveal a swathe of intriguing comments by Netanyahu, especially regarding the peace-for-territory formula with Syria, a possible IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, a willingness to refrain from building new settlements east of the Green Line and his dim view of Jews in Hebron.

Cover of the newly declassified memo from Israel's State Archives on the Netanyahu-Clinton meetingCredit: Israel State Archive

Netanyahu went on, in his first and second terms in office, through American private individuals and through official U.S. channels, to negotiate with both ruling members of the Assad dynasty, but the launch can be traced to this initial conversation, in which he chose not to reject what preceded him – just not to admit it in so many words.

The archive file was listed under Danny Naveh, Netanyahu's Cabinet Secretary, later a Likud MK and for three years a minister in Ariel Sharon’s government. Naveh is not mentioned in the notes. The only Netanyahu aide contributing to the exchange is Dore Gold, the PM’s policy advisor. Gold’s task was to produce, for Clinton’s attention, a 1975 commitment by President Gerald Ford to Rabin on the issue of land-for-peace with Syria.

However, in that letter, sought by Rabin to distinguish a possible Israeli-Syrian peace process and the step-by-step process with Egypt which culminated in a complete withdrawal from Sinai, Ford, or was it Henry Kissinger, stopped short of an American promise that Israel would not have to retreat from all the Golan Heights, back to the disputed 1967 line.

Ford merely promised that, in the event of a "just and lasting peace…acceptable to both sides" between Israel and Syria, the U.S. "will support the position" that it "must assure Israel's security from attack from the Golan Heights." Ford's letter went on: "The U.S. has not developed a final position on the borders. Should it do so it will give great weight to Israel's position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights."

Great weight, indeed. When negotiations reach their "take it or leave it" endgames, politicians, not to mention presidents and prime ministers, have been known to rationalize the revocation of far more unequivocal pledges.

When Netanyahu met Clinton, the president was on a roll in the Arab-Israeli political process, having played a part in the Oslo Accords and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty. But a Syrian breakthrough seemed elusive, despite meetings between the military chiefs of Israel and Syria (Shachak and Shihabi respectively) in Washington, which Netanyahu, when in opposition to Rabin, tried to undercut.

Domestically, Clinton’s position was more precarious. He was in a re-election contest with the Republican candidate, Senator Bob Dole, whose party held the majority in the House of Representatives and thereby gave Speaker Newt Gingrich a perch from which to constantly needle Clinton. Netanyahu did not hide his ideological, and by implication political, affinity with Gingrich.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO leader Yasser Arafat at a White House news conference, the same year as the meeting described in the declassified memo, where President Bill Clinton said that they'd failed to settle their explosive differencesCredit: AP

Politics aside, Netanyahu had to walk a fine line, or indeed two, between the Palestinian and Syrian tracks and between his promise to continue the Oslo process (a promise, he reminded his party, that was crucial to his election victory over Shimon Peres, in the wake of Rabin's assassination) and his insistence that he would improve on it by demanding strict reciprocity from Yasser Arafat.

There was significant momentum, still, on the Palestinian track. Out of seven major cities in the West Bank, six were being transferred to Arafat’s control by Peres when the elections cut the sequence, leaving Hebron as Netanyahu’s headache.

This was the immediate problem, but Syria could not be pushed into some back drawer. The account in Naveh’s file reflects Netanyahu’s willingness to entertain a policy similar or even identical to Rabin’s – which Peres had inherited but had no time to pursue in his seven-month caretakership – without publicly admitting to it.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin watching a press conference given by Syrian President Hafez Assad and U.S. President Bill Clinton Credit: Avi Ohayon/La'am

When the note-taker entered the room, following the private, off-the-record part of the meeting, Netanyahu commented that he ran and won on two issues, "security and Jerusalem."

"Security" referred to the series of horrific bus bombs and other terror acts of early 1996 and the rockets targeting Israel’s North during Operation Grapes of Wrath. "Jerusalem" was used as a populist scare slogan, to warn hesitant voters that Peres would divide the capital, giving parts of it to Arafat. President Clinton was asked to convey a message to Arafat: that Palestinian political activity out of East Jerusalem’s Orient House was unacceptably "nibbling away at our sovereignty."

And so, on to Hebron, where "we have the greatest potential of exploding the peace process." Memories of massacres in Hebron were both fresh (Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslims in 1994) and historical (the Arab of over 65 Jews in 1929). In his speeches, Netanyahu always praised those Jewish settlers who insisted on living there, in constant friction with Palestinians. But in the safety of the White House, he offered a quite different take.

Netanyahu's comments about Hebron's Jewish and Arab 'radicals' in a newly declassified memo from Israel's State Archives on the Netanyahu-Clinton meetingCredit: Israel State Archive

"Peres passed [me] the hot potato" of Hebron, he complained, as if he would have supported his opponent deciding the issue before the election. Then he offered a surprising symmetry: "We have problems with the Jewish community and with Hebron Arabs. The two most radical communities are in Hebron – both Israelis and Arabs."

When Netanyahu headed the opposition to Rabin's ruling Labor Party, he serially tagged Arafat with the word "crook," a descriptor he now, somewhat unoriginally, throws at current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Once in power, however, he promised Clinton in that June conversation he would deal with his Palestinian counterpart "respectfully."

As for settlement activity, he said, he would not do push for their expansion any more than Rabin and Peres did, under whom there was 50 percent increase in the settler population ("shows graphs," according to memo), but he would confine it to "natural growth" within "existing municipal boundaries." If Palestinian land is confiscated, it would only be done "for security and bypass roads."

Next on the agenda was Iran. Netanyahu sought to convince Clinton that they should secretly cooperate in a strategy against the Iranian regime, "not of containment, but of collapse," meaning regime change.

Assad’s Syria, he went on, is a mafia. "You have a mafia in the U.S., we have mafia. When they see a tough response, then they respond." That was his opening gambit about how he saw potential negotiations with Syria.

Netanyahu's comments about Iran regime change and Syria's "Mafia" stateCredit: Israel State Archive

Modus vivendi with the mob? Dealing with the devil? Netanyahu’s point was one of price, not principle. "I think we can change his [Assad's] frame of reference (Clinton smiles). I think we should change the rules of the game. He’s become very arrogant. If we can change the rules of the game, then we can reach the goal."

That goal was the IDF’s withdrawal from South Lebanon, where it clung to a security zone, helped by local recruits to its proxy, the South Lebanon Army. Netanyahu had three conditions for the withdrawal: "After he disarms Hizballah" (in other words, never), "we find a solution for the SLA and there are international guarantees for the arrangement."

Clinton himself was not sure what would be higher on Assad’s own priority list: getting back the Golan or settling the Lebanon issue. Perhaps it was better for him that Israel was stuck in Lebanon, bleeding, and Beirut was dependent on Syrian protection. Netanyahu was intrigued enough to inquire whether Assad actually wanted a Golan deal. Clinton, seeing an opening, turned businesslike: "If you are ready to talk to him, this leads to the $64,000 question. Does he still have it in my pocket?"

Clinton’s "pocket" is of course that transparent device of deniable concession, whereby the middleman negotiates with parties fearful of being outmanoeuvred by each other, or even worse - being accused of selling out by domestic rivals.

Israel's former ambassador to the U.S. and Rabin’s chief Syria negotiator Itamar Rabinovich later summed up for the Brookings Institution the "pocket gambit," which took place on August 3 and 4, 1993, in Jerusalem and Damascus, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher was negotiating between Rabin and Assad.

"Rabin surprised Christopher (and everybody else) by giving him the "deposit": a hypothetical, conditional willingness to withdraw fully from the Golan in return for an upgraded version of the package of peace and security Sadat had given Begin in 1979…Rabin told Christopher that this was a strict secret to be ‘kept in his pocket.’"

Peres, Rabin’s foreign minister and political subordinate-rival, pushing the Oslo process that was about to be signed, was not told about this secret offer. Rabin preferred a deal with Assad rather than with Arafat, fearing that Peres would undercut it if he found out.

In the event, Christopher proved he was neither a Kissinger nor a James Baker, going on vacation rather than pursuing the negotiations once Assad was told of this secret suggestion – contrary to Rabin’s request – and responded by demanding more and giving less.

President Clinton looks on Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres writes the president's name in Hebrew after they sign a joint declaration on terrorism in 1996 at the White House Credit: Associated Press

After Rabin was assassinated, the then caretaker premier Peres was briefed about Rabin's offer by Rabinovich (who lived midpoint between Rabin’s apartment and Peres, in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Avivim). No progress was achieved in the short period prior to the elections, not least because relations were cut when Damascus refused to condemn a series of Hamas bus bombings.

And here was Clinton, demanding to know whether Netanyahu approved of the deposit remaining in his pocket. Obviously, if it was already not enough for Assad, any less would be a non-starter.

"I’m looking for a back channel to [Assad]," said Netanyahu, "Without a pocket." He tried to explain why he was beholden to continuity in Oslo but not vis-a-vis Syria. "An oral commitment to a hypothetical situation is very different from a written commitment. We got elected with a clear mandate. I can’t take something that was verbal."

Clinton would not budge. "There is no commitment to [Assad]. The only thing that I could tell him was that if he meets all the needs, then Rabin was willing to withdraw. The best thing for me to say today is look, I met with you and you did not tell me that I have to remove it from my pocket."

Netanyahu's comments to Bill Clinton about the "pocket": Rabin's verbal offer for a full withdrawal from the Golan HeightsCredit: Israel State Archive

The response was quintessential Netanyahu. He did not directly contradict Clinton’s statement by saying: No, let there be no misunderstanding, I am hereby telling you that Rabin's secret offer is null and void. And he had no intention of ever being caught by a leak (of whose mechanisms he was a master) that would reveal that Clinton's "pocket" held his own endorsement of withdrawal, as well as Rabin's.

Instead, he would signal but not say explicitly that he would stand by Rabin's proposal to exit the Golan Heights in the context of a negotiated settlement.

"I cannot say," said Netanyahu, "that it [the endorsement] remains in your pocket."

Amir Oren, a veteran observer of Israeli, American and NATO military and political affairs, has written for Haaretz on defense and government for more than two decades. Twitter: @Rimanero



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