With Barak No Withdrawal, No Peace
In Israel, there is a feeling of a great historical moment. Finally, after much pressure and diplomacy - the story goes - Asad agreed to turn to the road of peace. In the expected peace agreement, Syria will get back all of the Golan Heights, and Israel will get (among other things) security for the Israeli army in Southern Lebanon: During the negotiations, Syria will curb the Hizbolla, and even fight them if necessary, and thus will enable, eventually, an orderly Israeli withdrawal, within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement. (Southern Lebanon has been occupied by Israel since 1978. Hizbolla's guerrilla forces, supported by Iran, define their goal as liberating this area, which has become the Vietnam of Israel, with heavy casualties for the Israeli army, and massive protest against staying there. The Syrian Golan Heights were conquered in the 1967 war, and annexed already to Israel.)
Some may lift an eyebrow: Israel is giving up the Golan Heights in exchange for an orderly withdrawal from Southern Lebanon? But apparently, no one finds this surprising. Withdrawal from Lebanon was the major promise of Barak's elections campaign. By all signs, there is a strong majority in Israel for a comprehensive agreement of this sort, and the contra-demonstrations represent a minority. (The polls show that even a quarter of the settlers in the Golan Height support evacuation for peace.) It is this majority, of people who are tired of waiting for the next war, or thinking about the missiles that may get out of control with the 2000 bug, that elected Barak and authorized him to act. And these people are convinced now that Barak has indeed started to act.
Still, there is something strange in this idyllic picture. Why was it necessary to exert so much pressure on Assad? He is offered the Golan Height, along with Southern Lebanon. He is promised a water agreement with Turkey, in the midst of the worst drought in 45 years. And still he won't move without massive pressure. It is not often in history that a state is so resistant to taking.
The answer is that Asad knows that this is nothing but an eyewash. Precisely the same thing has happened already with Rabin in 1994. 'Haaretz' headline of April 11, 1994 (one of many at the time) declared: "The foreign ministry prepared a proposal for an agreement with Syria: The working assumption is full withdrawal from the Golan". Soon we heard that "Syrian and Lebanese army units raided Hizbolla's strong-holds and confiscated weapons" (April 19). The negotiations lasted two years, during which the Israeli army had quiet days in Lebanon. Then, as now, demonstrators marched in Israel against giving up the Golan Heights, but the negotiations led nowhere. Rabin demanded that the discussion will focus first on all details of the security arrangements and the size and time-table of the Israeli withdrawal will be left for the very end. After two years, the various committees were still discussing the exact location of some alert station, and managed to produce one unsigned 'non-paper' which mentions nothing about any withdrawal, while Rabin continues to invest unprecedented sums in construction and development of the Golan.
It appeared that Israel still intended many years of negotiations, which serve only one purpose - securing the peace of the Israeli army in Lebanon during these negotiations. In 1996, Asad got fed up and withdrew from the negotiations. Gradually, the guerrilla war in Southern Lebanon revived, with severe casualties to the Israeli army.
What Barak offers now is precisely the same course of negotiations. Then why does Asad agree to return to the role of the Israeli cop in Lebanon? He surrendered because he was threatened, not only with aggravation of the economical sanctions against Syria, but also with a Kosovo style war. The plan (widely referred to in Israeli media) was that Israel would withdraw temporarily from Lebanon, and then, with the first incident or missile (that could easily be provoked), the Western world, led by the US, will stand behind the peace-seeking Israel, when it attacks Syria, and will lend its air-force umbrella to this new mission of peace. When Barak uses such threats, one should take them seriously. Already in March 1982, during the preparations to the Lebanon invasion, colonel Barak suggested in a memorandum to defense minister Sharon, to widen the war into "a quick operation on Syria -1967 style - that develops through a quick succession of events" (following "some terrorist activity") "to a full scale strike on Syria" (1).
Asad won't sign an agreement without the Golan, and will not even agree to meet Barak. But he was forced to accept the role of the cop. To help him sell this to his people, he was allowed to tell them that Israel has agreed to withdraw. In Israel, they produce for him the spectacle of tears of farewell from the Golan.
From this game with our nerves, Barak hopes to gain the continuation of Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Indeed he declared already that the military preparations for withdrawal from Lebanon are 'frozen' till the end of the negotiations (that will never end).
The first victims of the new peace era are 24 wounded children of the Lebanese village Arab a-Salim. They were selected to test Asad's intentions and ability to keep the Hizbolla quiet. On Thursday, December 16th, while the meetings took place in Washington, the collaborating forces of 'Southern-Lebanon Army' shelled their school- yard during the break. The Israeli delegation "clarified that this was a mistake, and demanded that Damascus will see to it that the Hizbolla won't retaliate" ('Haaretz');. The test was successful: "Following pressure from Clinton's office, Syria sent messages to the Hizbolla, demanding they do not respond with missiles to the Northern parts of Israel" ('Yediot');.
Despite the misleading name 'security strip', Southern Lebanon is one of the Israeli occupied territories. At the present, there is no need to settle there, because there are not too many residents left to dislodge. But already in Ben Gurion's vision, the Litani river, in this area, is the natural northern border of Israel (and a source of water). Many attempts were made since the fifties to get a hold in this area (2), until this was accomplished in 1978. Barak has gotten to his hands a society fed up with the cost of the Israeli Vietnam, and an army that cannot handle it. But as long as Asad guarantees quiet, Israel can stay. If this fails, the Kosovo plan can be retrieved.
Ben Gurion's vision was bequeathed to the first generation of Israeli generals, like Sharon and Rabin, who passed it on to the second - Barak and the others in his government. Those who grew up in the army, and fought for the pieces of land, won't give it up for just peace. As long as Barak is in office, there will be no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no peace agreement with Syria, and no renunciation of Southern Lebanon.
(1) The full memorandum was exposed in Haaretz, January 8, 1999
(2) Quotations and further details can be found in Noam Chomsky's 'The Fateful Triangle', South End Press, Boston, 1983.
A reduced version of this column appeared in the Hebrew 'Yediot', December 16, 1999. Tanya Reinhart is a professor of Linguistics and cultural studies, Tel Aviv University.