This Ain't the Road of Peace
[Background: Following the Shepherdstown's Syria-Israel talks, the US issued a concealed document summarizing the positions of the two sides. The Arab (London) paper 'Al Hayat' printed a summary draft of this document, based on Syrian sources. Israeli sources denied the authenticity of this version, and exposed the full document, which appeared in the Israeli papers on January 13. A comparison of these two drafts is extremely revealing.]
For many in Israel, it is already difficult to remember the joy and relief in which they received the news about the forthcoming peace with Syria, about a month ago. What was this joy about?
From the Israeli perspective, it appeared that some sort of a cold status-quo has been maintained with Syria for years: Israel received the Golan Heights, and Syria is just sitting still. But in practice, it has been impossible to forget for a minute that this is not peace. Without the Golan Heights, Syria will not lift a finger against the Hizbolla guerilla forces that fight the Israeli army in Lebanon, and if Israel withdraws from Lebanon without peace with Syria, there is no guarantee that the Hizbolla will not direct fire to the Northern- Galilee parts of Israel.
What appeared as great hope a month ago, was peace with Syria, with peace for the Galilee. Peace as with Egypt: Israelis can visit the Red Sea or eat humus in Cairo, but it needs to be done as customary between two neighboring countries - with visas and borders control in Eilat.
If we examine the Syrian version of the Shepherdstown document, printed in 'Al Haiat' on January 9th, it appears that those who rejoiced were right, and peace is within reach. First, it seems that a solution could be found to the borders dispute: It has been often claimed in the Israeli media (though not attributed directly to Barak) that the debate remaining between the Israeli and Syrian negotiators regards a small strip of land between the international border (Israel's position) and the border at the time of the 67 war (the 'June 4' line - Syria's position). The importance of this strip is that it contains valuable water sources. The news in the Syrian version of the document is the clause that "Syria acknowledges that the June 4th line is not a border and is not drawn, and therefore is willing to cooperate in drawing the lines". (Section A.) Interpreters in Israel view this clause as signalling that Syria may be willing to compromise on this issue, and perhaps will agree to symbolic water gestures, as was the case with Jordan.
Another claimed area of dispute has been the nature of the peace relations. On this, Syria proposes now "to constitute regular peace relations, as between two neighboring countries" (Section B), that is, peace like with Egypt.
As for the security concerns of Israel, Syria "welcomes the presence of international forces under the US command in the Golan Heights" (Section C). Even more significant, in this respect, is what's behind the screen: Syria is committed to make sure that the Hizbolla will not operate against civilians in the Israeli North, and has already passed a painful test, when Lebanese children were bombarded in the Southern Lebanon village Arab Salim. Syria prevented retaliations against Israeli civilians (which are permitted in case civilians are targeted in Southern Lebanon, according to the terms of the agreement reached between Israel and the Hizbolla following the 1996 'Grapes of Wrath' war).
So, Syria is signalling readiness for peace, and the rest is a matter of taste. I personally actually find A-Shara more sympathetic than Barak and Clinton, but this, indeed, is not something that must be agreed upon. There is room for joy over the chance of peace.
But the joy cools off when one looks at the Israeli version of the same Shepherdstown document. Contrary to the common belief, Barak himself has never declared readiness to withdraw to the international border or to any specific line, but rather insisted, like Rabin before, that the borders will be decided only at the end of the negotiations. This is confirmed in the document, which specifies Israel position to be that "the border will be determined by security considerations and other considerations..." (Section I). More peculiar is the Israeli view regarding what this future border may mean: Throughout the whole document the Israeli side stresses that after the peace treaty there will be no 'withdrawal' of the Israeli army, but only a 'deployment of forces'. The distinction between withdrawal and deployment was made clear since the Oslo accords, which specify only deployment in the areas of the West Bank. Withdrawal entails complete evacuation, including civilian settlements, and shifting sovereignty, while redeployment means only moving the forces outside certain areas, thus maintaining control of the occupying side. Indeed, Israel insists that only military forces, but no citizens of Israel, will be redeployed in the Golan Heights, namely the settlements will not be evacuated. To make things clearer, Israel does not accept the Syrian stand that (after the moving of forces) "Each side will exercise its sovereignty in its side of the border" (Section I). So, whatever line will be eventually declared as 'border', the sovereignty over the Golan Height will remain Israeli. It seems that Israel is proposing to Asad the same plan it forced on Arafat.
And in the meanwhile, our days are filled with double messages, which emanate from above: We want peace, but with Syria it is simply impossible. They are dishonest, they are rude, they are primitive, they are not democratic and, on top of all, they are totally insensitive to Israeli public opinion. Every day that passes, Asad is perceived more by the media as a demonic tyrant whose crimes we cannot forgive. We start hearing even that 'the Syrians understand only power'. That's not how one prepares people for peace. That's how one prepares them to war.
Against the scenario of peace, there has always existed the script of power to guarantee peace and quiet to the Galilee. In 1982, the then Colonel Barak pressed Sharon to extend the war being prepared in Lebanon also to a smashing confrontation with Syria (1). He proposed to prepare this secretly, with a series of "ordinary" military exercises, whose real goal should be concealed from the government (where "it would be difficult to discuss this explicitly and with clear identification of the targets"), as well as from the army's chain of command "except for five or six officers who know the extent of intentions". Then it turned out impossible to execute this without heavy losses to the Israeli army, but today, with the sophisticated military machinery that we witnessed in the Iraq and Kosovo wars, it seems a bit more realistic. This is the equipment which Israel requests now from the US, for tens of milliards if dollars. As the Shepherdstown talks were taking place, the Israeli army performed a grand maneuver exercising war with Syria - the fifth of a series of 'ordinary exercises' of this sort. What would Israel say had Syria done the same in the midst of negotiations?
Peace is indeed reachable, but it is not where Barak is taking us.
Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics and cultural studies at Tel Aviv University.
(1) The full memorandum that Barak sent to Sharon in 1982 was exposed in Haaretz, January 8, 1999 by Amir Oren, and 'not denied' by Barak.
This commentary appeared as a column in the Hebrew daily 'Yediot Axaronot', January 16, 2000.