Alongside the revelations about the Israel strike on a Syrian facility last September and its link to a possible nuclear program and North Korean involvement, the Middle East press has been abuzz the last few days with talk of secret Turkish-sponsored Israeli-Syrian talks. Not so secret now.
Perhaps predictably, this became a domestic political issue inside Israel.
Likud and opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu wasted no time in attacking Prime Minister Olmert:
The Golan must remain in Israel’s hands…I am quite amazed that the Prime Minister promises to hand over all of the Golan Heights even before negotiations begin, and with such flippancy…this is no way to build peace...[Olmert is] a serial concession giver.
All to be expected, except this: as Prime Minister in the late 90s, Netanyahu himself ran a secret back-channel with Syria in which he, too, well, how to put this—agreed to withdraw from all of the Golan.
The Netanyahu-Assad talks used Ronald S. Lauder—now World Jewish Congress President—as an intermediary.
Prospects For Peace has obtained an exclusive copy of the actual negotiating documents—the content was made public before, but this is the first time the documents, with hand-written dates and all, are being posted. Here are a couple of key extracts from that document entitled ‘Treaty of Peace Between Israel and Syria’:
2. Israel will withdraw from the Syrian lands taken in 1967, in accordance with Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which establish the right of all states to secure and recognized borders and the ‘land for peace’ formula, to a commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923. The withdrawal will be effected in 3 stages, over a period of […] months, with full normalization being completed by the end of withdrawal (exchange of ambassadors at the outset)……
6. Security arrangements will be carried out through the establishment of 3 zones on both sides of the border, in phases that parallel the stages of Israeli withdrawal (as marked in the enclosed map): a) a demilitarized zone; b) a zone of limited forces and armaments; c) a zone where only non-offensive capability should be positioned.
In truth, it’s not the most sophisticated or well put-together draft peace treaty ever written—but there you have it.
Prime Minister Olmert’s bureau reminded MK Netanyahu of these flirtations with papa Assad, releasing the following quote:
Netanyahu was the one who sent an American businessman to Assad the father to give up the Golan Heights, on behalf of the people of Israel, even before any negotiations had begun (as reported in the April 28th edition of Maariv by Maya Bengal and Amit Cohen).
President Clinton confirmed the story in his own memoirs—My Life. Here is Clinton discussing Israeli-Syrian talks:
Peres [Shimon—when PM in ’96—DL] wanted me to sign a security treaty with Israel if it gave up the Golan, an idea that was suggested to me later by Netanyahu and would be advanced again by [Ehud] Barak.
In the 1999 Israeli election campaign when Netanyahu suggested that he would be tougher on Assad and any Golan concessions than his opponent Ehud Barak, he was confronted from a surprising direction. Netanyahu’s previous Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, had bolted the government to lead up a new Center Party and in an election debate, when Netanyahu made his “tougher on the Golan” claim, Mordechai dropped a bomb: “Look me in the eye Bibi and say that. Look me in the eye.” Mordechai knew of the Lauder channel and Netanyahu’s bluff had been called.
The whole story suggests that not only does Bibi have a truth-telling problem when it comes to Syria-Golan issues (or at least a selective memory) but worse than that, he even hid information from both President Clinton and Ehud Barak that undermined later negotiations.
Here is how Dennis Ross—former Special Middle East Coordinator—describes in his book The Missing Peace what Clinton was told about the Lauder episode. Ross tells us how, at Clinton’s request, Lauder shared the 10-point paper. Here is how Ross recalls his own response:
Once I had looked this over, the President asked me what I thought. I told him it was ‘too good to be true.’ But now I understood why Barak and his colleagues believed they did not need to commit to the June 4 lines…So Clinton sent the paper Lauder had given him to Assad (faxed to the personal attention of the Ambassador, who was instructed to hand deliver it without comment to Assad)…Two days later, Assad responded, calling the President to say that Syria had not accepted this paper, and would not now.
Only later did Lauder apparently come clean and tell the full story—the parts he had kept from both the American and Israeli leaders (and that Netanyahu had also hidden):
In mid-September 1999 Ronald Lauder sent a letter to President Clinton enclosing an eight-point paper which he claimed included the final points that had been agreed upon by both sides in 1998. Gone was the reference to the 1923 borderline, replaced by withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines. Syrian concerns were clearly addressed, but this was a very different paper from the ten points we had been shown…Lauder’s ‘clarifying letter’ to President Clinton indicate that Bibi Netanyahu had committed to withdrawal to the June 4 lines.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good thing that Netanyahu understands the need to negotiate with Syria and that for those negotiations to succeed, Israel will need to commit to a full Golan withdrawal. What is worrying is that Netanyahu continues to hoodwink both the Israeli public and his cheerleader crew in the US—and that both Lauder and Netanyahu only partially and misleadingly disclosed their negotiation effort to the Americans and Israeli leaders when they resumed the Syria contacts—an act of dangerous diplomatic irresponsibility.
One other thing about the handwritten date on the original Netanyahu-Lauder Israel-Syria Peace Treaty revealed here—it is Saturday August 29, 1998. Whoops—the religious parties won’t like that one Bibi—desecrating the Sabbath and giving up the Golan—what a shanda!