Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, January 17th, 2007
Here are some initial responses to the leaked story of second track Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that no government officials were involved in secret contacts with Syria, responding to a Haaretz report that understandings on a peace agreement between Jerusalem and Damascus were formulated in a series of secret meetings in Europe between September 2004 and July 2006.
"No one in the government was involved in this matter," Olmert told reporters in northern Israel. "It was a private initiative on the part of an individual who spoke with himself. From what I read, his interlocutor was an eccentric from the U.S., someone not serious or dignified."
The Syrian Foreign Ministry also rejected the report.
"No negotiations took place, the Haaretz report is completely false," a Syrian Foreign Ministry official said in Damascus
Official Israeli response to the report was more tentative.
"This is the first we have heard of the talks, we have never sanctioned anybody to speak to the Syrians and the prime minister first learned of these conversations through the newspaper report this morning," said Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin.
An unnamed senior cabinet minister was quoted Tuesday as saying that there were no contacts between the two nations, and that the story was "a bluff."
"We don't know about this, and if this had happened, we would have known about it," Israel Radio quoted the minister as saying. "This is not serious. It's possible that there were contacts on the level of academics, it's possible that there were reports to officials on a low level. But it did not reach higher than that."
The minister dismissed the report as a "bluff," the radio said.
Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom said that he first learned of the talks by reading Tuesday's paper. He said the last contact Israel had with a Syrian representative was in 2003.
Dr. Alon Liel, a former director general at the Foreign Ministry, who took part in all the meetings, was quoted as saying that he had not acted the representative of anyone. Liel further declined to state whom he had informed of the meetings.
The radio quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials as stating that Israel is not holding contacts with Syria.
The officials referred to the sensitivity of the issue, in view of the opposition of Washington, Israel's main ally, to negotiations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Syria is trying to topple the Siniora government in Lebanon, a government which the United States is trying to aid," the radio quoted one official as saying. "Syria streams terror elements to Iraq, where they operate against the United States military, Syria fosters [Damascus-based Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal, it transfers arms to Hezbollah, hosts headquarters of terror organizations, supports Hamas, and, in general, undermines any attempt to reach a [peace] agreement
A figure described as a very senior official in the office of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying that "there was no reports to Sharon, there were no reports to his office, there was no connection between Sharon and Alon Liel, this never happened."
"This is absolute nonsense."
Akiva Eldar's comments on Olmert's denial: The denial / Assassination of a peace initiative
Bushra Kanafani, the spokesperson for the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also insists the Haartz articles about peace negotiations are fabricated: “News about reaching ‘secret understanding’ for peace with Israel are fabricated”
A follow up article by Akiva Eldar in Haaretz claims that VP Cheney was kept in the loop about the second track negotiations
Senior American government officials received regular reports of the secret meetings that took place in Europe between a former Israeli official and a Syrian representative, Haaretz has learned.
Senior officials in Washington told Haaretz that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was kept in the picture about these indirect talks between Syria and Israel.
Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman, the Syrian representative, also said this at his meetings with former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel, adding that Cheney had made no move to stop him from participating in the talks. Suleiman is a Washington resident.
A document that Dr. Nimrod Novik, a former political advisor to Vice Premier Shimon Peres, disseminated last October to members of the Council for Peace and Security also said that Washington knew about the talks. “While the administration is taking care not to broadcast a U-turn in its approach as long as the president has not given it an explicit green light, the signs of a change in direction are multiplying,” Novik wrote.
“During the fighting in Lebanon, former senior [U.S.] officials were authorized to speak with Damascus, within a narrow mandate, while Pentagon and State Department officials support a change in the policy toward Hamas and quote the president in this context.”
Geoffrey Aronson, of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who helped arrange the secret meetings, also participated last year in meetings organized by Alastair Crooke, the European Union’s former security envoy to the territories, with key Hamas and Hezbollah members.
These meetings, which took place in Beirut, were also attended by two former senior Central Intelligence Agency officials. Haaretz reported at the time that Cheney also know about the existence of these meetings, and received regular reports from the American participants.
Novik wrote that “during secret talks via a third party a few years ago, the Syrians already demonstrated much more flexibility than they did at Shepherdstown on matters such as the pace of the withdrawal, implementation of normalization and creative solutions (’a peace park’) for the area north of [Lake] Kinneret. Then, too, it was Israel that refused direct, official talks.”
The Shepherdstown talks were formal Israeli-Syrian negotiations started by Ehud Barak’s government.
Meretz-Yahad Chairman Yossi Beilin said in media interviews Tuesday that the European mediator in the secret talks was Nicholas Lang, head of the Middle East desk at the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
Lang also played a key role in organizing the Israeli-Palestinian meetings at which Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo drafted the Geneva Initiative, their proposal for a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Liel, who was the driving force behind the secret meetings with Suleiman, is one of the people closest to Beilin.
Raviv Drucker, of Channel 10 television, reported last night that Lang met not long ago with Shalom Turjeman, Ehud Olmert’s political adviser, and presented him with the draft. According to Drucker, Turjeman told Lang that Israel has no interest in the understandings. Drucker also said that Lang visited Damascus several times during the talks, met with Syrian FM Farouk Shara, and reported that he believed the Syrian leadership genuinely wanted a deal.
Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, Director of The Syrian Think Tank, wrote me:
Amazing story. Akiva Eldar had a very productive week in Madrid!
But I am not surprised to hear that the Syrians had to settle for this type of channel. Given the hard line official positions of Israel under Mr. Sharon (and Mr. Netanyahu before), Syria had no option but to seek indirect channels through influential Jewish businessmen. Other examples, Jack Avital, close friend of prime minister Sharon and leader of Syrian Jews in New York. Imad Moustapha convinced him that Syria is serious about peace … but it did not seem to change Mr. Sharon's public positions.
In the 90's, Mr. Netanyahu's refusal to publicly negotiate with Syria also forced the Syrians to seek another Jewish millionaire’s help (I can’t remember the name, but I think he was friend of the British prime minister)
But I have some reservations on the parts where Syria supposedly committed (verbally or in writing) to this back channel to 1) get rid of Mashaal and Hamas, and 2) to cut ties with Iran in favor of sunni direction (as the story says) .. I think this is a distorted version of what the Syrians offered. They are much more careful than that. Remember how the Syrians refuse to even speak to Israeli journalists … they don’t commit to anything in advance.
Helping Hizballah turn into a political party is more realistic.
As for Israeli right-wing governments .. I don’t understand their motivation to go through these exercises. At the end they don’t seem to go for it … I think they just want to keep this option (Peace with Syria) an available open option in case they need to go for it. But Israel is still not decided … Is Syria worth the “painful concessions”?Egypt (the largest Arab country) was a much easier decision for Mr. Begin at the time … Egypt was worth the price for peace. Syria’s value is a more complex variable that they don’t know how to evaluate… Syria, through these secret meetings hopes to help Israel in estimating Syria’s considerable significance to Israel.
Imad Moustapha, Syria's Ambassador to the US, said Syria had repeatedly called for diplomatic talks with Israel.
"We want peaceful relations with Israel, but also not in a sell-out way," he said. "We want dignified relations with the United States, but also not in a sell-out way."
As for Lebanon, the ambassador said he was concerned by news of continued domestic turbulence in Beirut.
"The situation is very tense in Lebanon – they need a national coalition."
Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said this week that peace anytime soon between Israel and Syria was unrealistic. In an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba, he said "the American government will not allow the [Israelis] to negotiate with Syria."
Farid Ghadry – Reform Party of Syria
Alleged Deal with Israel is a Mirage
Washington DC, January 16, 2007/Reform Syria Blog – Farid Ghadry/ — Haaretz reported today that a deal has been struck between Syria and Israel. The article details secret talks that have been conducted since 2004 with the tacit approval of Ariel Sharon.
The planting of this news item today, even though the supposed negotiations were halted in July 2006, was intended to coincide with the new US Iraq policy determined to stop Syrian and Iranian interference in Iraq. This leak is simply an attempt by Israelis who support Assad to impose themselves on the Olmert government the way the Iraq Study Group tried to impose itself on the Bush administration.
This latest attempt is one of desperation on the part of Assad. He is looking through his crystal ball and what he sees makes him worry. The Syrian economy cannot be sustained for long at this rate of decreased oil revenues and increased isolation. Even Iran will not be able to foot the bill because it has to maintain a certain military readiness that is exhausting its treasury.
The US policy of isolating Assad is working like a charm as witnessed by Assad's desperate moves. He will have no choice but to quit his violent policies and open Syria for real reforms. Keep the pressure up.
An Alawite businessman who has worked assiduously with Jewish counterparts to get peace talks started wrote this very negative reaction to the peace proposal. His reaction was typical among many Syrians and helps explain why Foreign Ministry officials denied it:
Even though I am a polite person, and do not use such words, my politest response to the Israeli who proposed the draft agreement below is: go fuck yourself.
Syria will not accept any condition on how it uses its rightful land, such as enforcing a park or any other stupid and insulting ideas like these. This foxy idea by the Israelis is intended to deprive Syrians from inhabiting the land so close to the border, and therefore depriving them from using resources like water in the region, all that while Israelis can build new settlements right at the border.
The same thing applies to all the other stupid ideas like having a monitoring point controlled by the US in the Mt. Jabal El-Sheikh.
This is not negotiations, this is trying to make fools of the Syrians, and Israel must learn the true meaning of land for peace before anything positive can take place. I am truly more pessimistic right now.
My advice to the Israelis is to make sure that whatever they put in a proposal for peace should apply on both sides. So if they want to have a monitoring point commanded by the US in the Golan, they must allow an Iranian commanded monitoring point inside Israel. If they want the Syrians to have a freeking park in our land, they MUST have the same on their side of the border. If they want a demilitarized zone in the Golan, they must have one on their side of the border, etc.
Until then, there shall be no peace and no improvement of the situation. Let us see how long it will take, and how many lives and bloods will be wasted.
David W. Lesch, Trinity Univ.
One of the priority recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report released in early December was for the United States to re-engage in a dialogue with Syria. This would be part of an overall diplomatic initiative in the Middle East that would re-start negotiations on a variety of fronts leading ultimately to that elusive comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, all of which would have serendipitous repercussions (from the U.S. point of view) for the U.S. position in Iraq, and it would by default diminish Iran’s enhanced influence in the region. According to this line of thought Syria is a keystone. It goes something like this: with Syria engaged in peace negotiations with Israel amid an improved diplomatic environment with the United States, both Hizbullah and Hamas could be more effectively emasculated, which would in turn lessen Teheran’s ingress into the Arab-Israeli arena, improve the chances for a final Israeli peace agreement with a more moderate Palestinian negotiating partner, and loosen the ties between Syria and Iran. In addition, Syria would be held to a higher standard in terms of more energetic efforts by Damascus to stem the inflow of support for Iraqi insurgents crossing over the Iraqi-Syrian border, thus helping U.S. efforts to stabilize the deteriorating situation there.
There was a great deal of hope in Damascus that the combination of the Iraq Study Group report with the Democratic victory in both Houses of Congress in the 2006 midterm election would compel the Bush administration to finally give up its clear objective of isolating, if not overthrowing, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. It was thought—and not just by those in Damascus—that Syria’s presumed added leverage from its self-professed victory by proxy through Hizbullah in the Israeli-Lebanese conflict this past summer along with the deepening U.S. quagmire in Iraq would result in Syria’s reintegration into the Middle East diplomatic paradigm. This would improve Syria’s position in Lebanon (as something of a trade-off for re-starting negotiations with Israel), allow Damascus to acquire a voice in the diplomacy regarding Iraq and overall break-out of its diplomatic isolation regionally, and, finally, get the Bush administration off of its back and take it seriously. This was apparent the last time I met with Bashar this past July during the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict. I asked him how he felt about President Bush’s off-hand expletive regarding Syria that was recorded during a luncheon at the G-8 summit in June. Rather than expressing anger, Bashar immediately said that it was a good sign, i.e. the president of the United States was actually thinking about Syria for a change rather than ignoring it. Bashar seemed to be on the precipice of returning his country to the more cooperative relationship with the United States that existed in the 1990s.
The Bush administration has made it clear in recent weeks that it will not re-open a dialogue with Syria along the lines recommended by the Iraq Study Group. Quite to the contrary, there are numerous reports that the Bush administration has embraced with renewed vigor the idea of regime change in Damascus. It will utilize Syrian exile groups and regional allies to isolate and pressure the Syrian regime as well as ensure that Syria does not “win” in Lebanon through the political empowerment of its Lebanese allies. Bush administration officials want to split Syria off from Iran, but rather than attempt to do so through diplomatic engagement with a willing Bashar, it means to do so by removing him and putting in power someone more amenable to U.S. designs. There is little hard evidence to suggest this is imminent, but with this administration, where there is smoke there is often fire, and administration ideologues have long had a monopoly on the relentless U.S. policy toward Syria. Anything less would appear, from this administration’s point of view, to be rewarding Syria for its perceived hostile policies.
If true, this would be pure folly. Beyond the fact that the U.S. has few assets to utilize in any attempt to effect regime change in Damascus, including the divided and de-legitimized Syrian exile groups, even if this was the right thing to do, would anyone really entrust to this inept administration such a complex and delicate task? Israeli officials certainly do not want it because it would most likely lead to another Iraqi mess on their doorstep. Logic dictates that the Bush administration could not possibly be thinking along these lines, but ideology often trumps logic, and moral absolutism buries compromise; therefore, such nonsense must be quashed before it becomes a reality. Many now wish there was the political, academic, and media wherewithal to deter an ideologically driven policy toward Iraq in 2003. History doesn’t have to repeat itself.
For Bashar, he will now probably return to his wait and see approach regarding the United States, meaning staying alive until a new U.S. administration comes to power that may be more amenable to a dialogue and will not ask Syria to give up all of its perceived assets before negotiations on any front begin. In the meantime, he will attempt to implement real and much-needed economic reform, consolidate his gains in Lebanon, an environment in which Syria is well-placed and has the motivation to again defeat the United States there, and continue to send out peaceful signals toward Israel in the hope that an Israeli leader will have the gumption to crawl out from under U.S. pressure and explore Syrian intentions. It could be a very dull 2007 regarding Syria—or, indeed, very dramatic.
David W. Lesch is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. His most recent publications are ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History’ (Oxford University Press, 2007), ‘The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment (Westview Press, 2007), and ‘The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria’ (Yale University Press, 2005).