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This Ain’t the Road of Peace


Tanya Reinhart

[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. 

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