Israeli-Syrian peace failure lessons for future

Ex-IDF intel chief’s last article analyzes untold internal Syrian narrative.

A SYRIAN woman from the Golan Heights village of Ain al-Tinaeh holds a poster of deceased Syrian president Hafez Assad and son Bashar as she searches for relatives in the village of Majdal Shams, across the border in Israel, in July 2000 (photo credit: KH.H/REUTERS)
A SYRIAN woman from the Golan Heights village of Ain al-Tinaeh holds a poster of deceased Syrian president Hafez Assad and son Bashar as she searches for relatives in the village of Majdal Shams, across the border in Israel, in July 2000
(photo credit: KH.H/REUTERS)
New insights into the March 2000 peace summit between then-US president Bill Clinton and then-Syrian president Hafez Assad indicate that the prospects of Israeli-Syrian peace were not as close as believed, according to a new report.
The report, authored by former IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilboa on behalf of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, puts doubt on future potential negotiations despite the fact that Syria is relatively more stable now than at any time since 2011.
In his last publication before his sudden death on Tuesday, Gilboa, 81, analyzes the mostly ignored two serious Arabic narratives from top Assad officials who were in the room.
Whereas multiple Israeli and US negotiators put out their accounts in English of the US-Syrian-Israeli peace talks of 1993-2000 at the time, the books by then-Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara and Assad translator and confidante Bouthaina Shaaban did not come out until more than a decade later and only in Arabic.
Gilboa, who was fluent in Arabic, points out that these books have been overlooked in showing how much farther apart the sides were than some of the accounts presented by Israeli and American negotiators present.
According to Gilboa’s analysis of these books, Shara and Shaaban present themselves and Assad as focused solely on the issue of Israeli withdrawal.
Prior reports at the time said that talks fell apart over disagreements about the scope of Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
But Gilboa indicates that no deal was close, because the Syrians had no interest whatsoever in what they would give Israel.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat understood, when negotiating with Israel, that he would be given a Sinai withdrawal in exchange for security concepts like demilitarized zones as well as normalization.
Yet, in their own words, the Syrian officials at Geneva had a different concept.
Their concept was that full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would end the state of war between the countries, and that peace would be the automatic result.
After that withdrawal, they said, it would be natural for the parties to explore other issues like degrees of normalization and whether Syria could encourage a parallel Israeli-Lebanese peace process. But Israel would have used up all of its leverage and then have had to count on the “goodwill” of Syria.
In contrast, Israel demanded demilitarized security zones, including a 400-500-meter strip on the edge of what would become the Syrian side of the Kinneret. This would avoid the possibility of Syria cutting the Kinneret off from Israel.
In addition, Jerusalem wanted normalization to move in parallel to any phased withdrawal from the Golan.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of Gilboa’s analysis, though, pertain to more mundane and personal issues surrounding the Geneva Summit.
Shara complains extensively about Clinton’s conduct on superficial issues.
These included: arriving late to their joint hotel; making noise in the middle of the night which interrupted Assad’s sleep; giving Assad an awkward tie as a present; including peace envoy Dennis Ross in the meeting, though he had not been listed; the absence of a conference table to give the sides space; an allegedly messy map with the wrong kinds of specifics; and trying to take advantage of Assad’s poor health.
Out of this list of superficial issues – which admittedly can sometimes impact diplomacy (especially of negotiators who come in with heavy suspicions) – Gilboa flags the real issue as Assad’s health.
Reading between the lines of Shara’s comments, Gilboa shows that most of the issues cited were probably a cover for the fact that Assad, who lived only a few more months, was not invested in the talks, not because of loud Americans and thoughtless gifts. Rather, it was because he was physically and emotionally unable to focus.
Further, to the degree the highest level of Syrians focused at all, they had no interest in the Israeli side’s perspective, writes Gilboa.
As far as they were concerned, the deceased prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had promised them years before a full Golan withdrawal all the way to the Kinneret, and any other discussions were not all that relevant.
Besides painting any future of Israeli-Syrian negotiations in a pessimistic light on those grounds, Gilboa highlights bad faith on the Syrians part when Shara writes in his book that Assad was upset with Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.
It appears clear from Shara’s book that Syria wanted Israel stuck in Lebanon. This way Jerusalem could extricate itself only by a deal with Assad, and preferably with its tail between its legs, as opposed to in a coordinated fashion with UN recognition.
This reaction, which Shara reveals for the first time, shows that Assad was not really interested in peace, notes Gilboa.