Israel and the Syria Track

Israel’s Prime Minister has sent about 20 messages to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the last year, feeling out the possibility of resuming peace talks between the two countries, according to a report by correspondent Barak Ravid published on Sunday in Haaretz newspaper. 

The source for the story was an unnamed “senior Israeli minister”, who told Haaretz that Olmert’s purpose was “to better assess Syria‘s intentions”. 

However, the “senior Israeli Minister” told Haaretz that the Syrian responses “did not meet Israeli expectations”, and were not satisfactory, and so as a result “Olmert believes that at this time it is not possible to initiate negotiations with Syria”.

During the time of these newly-revealed messages, Israel also apparently made a military strike in early September against a target in eastern Syria which may or may not have had something to do with a nuclear program, a missile program, or weapons being funneled from Iran, according to various speculative reports in the media. 

At least one of the messages Olmert sent to Syria in the past year was just before that reported strike, saying that Israel had no hostile intentions.

Indeed, after months of growing tension and speculation that there might be a re-play of Israel’s 2006 “Second Lebanon War”, Israel signaled that it decided that war with Syria was unlikely, in part apparently because Syria’s military had reduced its war readiness  — and Israel rotated forces out of the contested Golan Heights, just before the strike.

Syrian leaders reportedly complained bitterly that Olmert’s message was a diversion meant to get Syria to drop its guard before the strike – though they say that the strike caused no significant damage.

The “senior Israeli minister” who told Haaretz about Olmert’s messages to Syria said that most of these efforts were made through via Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although others were also involved, “including U.S. congressmen and various European officials”.

The messages concerned the possible agenda for the talks between the two countries — including “whether Assad was willing to include in the talks his country’s ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant organizations”.

The latest flurry of speculation about Israel-Syria talks started with remarks made by Olmert last Wednesday evening to a press conference with the international press corps

accredited in Israel.   One journalist from Bloomberg News asked Olmert: “Mr. Prime Minister, you said that you’re willing to sit down and talk to the Syrians.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he is willing to talk to you.  What exactly is keeping you guys from sitting down and starting to talk?” 

Olmert replied: “I said indeed that I am prepared to make peace with Syria.  I hope that the Syrians are prepared to make peace with Israel and I hope that circumstances will allow us to sit together.  That doesn’t mean that when we sit together you have to see us”. 

Last spring, news was leaked of semi-official contacts with a Syrian-American go-between, Dr. Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, described as “a Syrian Allawite who has been living in the U.S. for many years” who had been talking to Dr. Alon Liel in Israel.  Suleiman “accepted the invitation of Meretz-Yahad faction chairwoman Zahava Gal-On in April to present Syria‘s point of view on relations with Israel to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee”, but saw no officials in the Israeli government, according to an article published last October by Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar.

According to Eldar, Suleiman’s contact in Damascus was General Mohammed Nassif, who communicated the details from Suleiman to President Assad. 

At least one of the European go-betweens was a ranking Ambassador in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Nicholas Lang, who also tried a little shuttle diplomacy on behalf of Swiss Foreign Minister (and Swiss President in 2007) Micheline Calmy-Ray.  Suleiman was, according to Haaretz’s Eldar, apparently also “a secret and partially official envoy of Syria to the Swiss channel”.

Eldar wrote in Haaretz in October that the Syrian leadership had an ambivalent attitude toward these contacts with Israel: “On the one hand, in one of his recent speeches, Assad bragged about the indirect contacts Syria has made with Israel through Syrian expatriates living in the West in an attempt to reach a diplomatic arrangement…On the other hand, since his visit to Jerusalem, Suleiman has become a persona non grata in Damascus. His Swiss colleagues are also not very welcome there. At the end of May, Suleiman visited Berne and met with the president and foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey. The two decided that the time was ripe to visit Damascus together to congratulate Assad on his election for a second term. At the same time, they tried to convince the Syrian president to reopen the channel that was closed last summer after the special Swiss envoy [n.b. Nicholas Lang, now serving as Ambassador in a post in Africa], who was in charge of the talks, left empty-handed following his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s adviser, Yoram Turbowicz.   As Suleiman reported to American friends, he called the bureau of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem from Berne and told the head of the bureau, an official by the name of Samir, that the Swiss president wished to visit Damascus in two weeks’ time in his company.  According to Suleiman, Samir immediately responded that ‘this is not the time’.”

But, Israeli sources complained at the time these efforts were revealed, the U.S. had put pressure on Israel to drop any flirtation with Syria in order to concentrate on the negotiations with the Palestinians. 

A sort of rivalry has existed – and been manipulated – for years between the Syrian negotiaion track with Israel, and the “Palestinian” track.

So, the not-too-subtle, even rather provocative, hint contained in that last phrase of Olmert’s answer, suggesting more recent secret contacts, sent reporters rushing out to check with sources.

It is interesting that Olmert declined to seize an opportunity, in last week’s press conference, to pile on complaints about Syria.  Instead, when Olmert was asked about the Arab peace initiative – and especially about what it says concerning Syria – he replied: “I much prefer to speak about the whole thing and you know, I don’t see any particular reason now to separate the different parts of the Arab Peace Initiative.  The Arab Peace Initiative is relevant”. 

Other Israeli ministers then added their views.

Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer (who was born in Iraq) said on Israel Radio Friday morning that “Israel is making every effort to restore Syria to the negotiating table. The efforts are constant and are being done through common friends…We know exactly what the price would be”. 

Haaretz reported that on Friday evening, in a briefing for foreign diplomats at the Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel’s Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak said that “in the end, Israel will meet Syria either in the field of battle or in the negotiating table … Syria is a weak country with many problems, but under certain conditions Israel will be willing to open the door to it … Israel considers negotiations with Syria and removing Syria from the circle of extremists as central to its policy.” 

Barak also said, according to Haaretz, that “It would not be a good idea for someone to try something against us at this time … We are following what is going on in the North, the growing strength of Hezbollah with Syrian backing and the developments over the border in Syria. Israel is the most powerful country in the region and this is what enables it to stand on guard but also try to seek [peace] agreements.”

Haaretz reported in a second article on Sunday that “A week earlier, [during the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel] Olmert told a joint meeting of the Israeli and German Cabinets that he was ready to restart negotiations with Syria if Damascus would end its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militant groups”.


During Ehud Barak’s tenure as Israeli Prime Minister, attempts by U.S. President Bill Clinton to restart Israeli-Syria negotiations at talks with Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva failed in May 2000 — over the issue of the extent of Israel’s proposed withdrawal from the Golan Heights which Israel captured in 1967 and then annexed de facto in 1981 by proclaiming that Israeli law applied to the Golan.  This is generally regarded as null and void by most United Nations member states on the basis of international law.  Most of the remaining Arab inhabitants of the Golan are Druse who continue to define themselves as Syrian citizens.  Tens of thousands of other Syrians fled the Golan Heights during the 1967 war. 

Israel says it then came under surprise attack from Syria on the Golan in the 1973 war.  The Israeli army was successful there at that time, IDF Brigadier-General (Reserve) Tzvika Foghel told journalists during a recent tour of the Golan in late 2007, because the Syrians “had a day-mission habit.  That is, they only had orders for the day, and the mission of the day was to stop at a certain point.  We used the time they were resting to push them back”.

In any case, Syria has consistently demanded the return of the entire Golan Heights, which overlooks a large part of Syria, and also part of Lebanon, all the way down to the waters of Lake Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee or Lake Kinneret).

Israel has signaled it will not give up a strip of land along the shore of the lake from which it draws some 35% of Israel’s water supply.

Israeli officials argue that Syria never had “its feet in the water” of the Sea of Galilee, at least according to the maps of the League of Nations mandatory period.  But, in 1948, Syrian soldiers apparently did manage to secure positions on the shore. 

Then, as part of the UN-negotiated armistice agreement between Israel and Syria, signed 20 July 1949, Israel demanded that Syria withdraw from some positions on the Golan, including on the shores of Lake Tiberias.  Syria agreed — as long as these positions were to be demilitarized. 

A letter from UN mediator Ralph Bunch to Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett which is appended to the armistice agreement says that “in the Israeli-Transjordan Armistice Agreement…the armistice demarcation lines agreed upon involved changes in the then existing truce lines, and that this was done in both cases without any question being raised as to the sovereignty over or the final disposition of the territory involved. It was taken for granted by all concerned that this was a matter for final peace settlement. The same applies to the provision for the al-‘Auja zone in the Egyptian-Israeli Agreement. From the beginning of these negotiations our greatest difficulty has been to meet Israel‘s unqualified demand that the Syrian forces be withdrawn from Palestine. We have now, with very great effort, persuaded the Syrians to agree to this. I trust that this will not be undone by legalistic demands about broad principles of sovereignty and administration which in any case would be worked out in the practical operation of the scheme”.

Israelis moved into many of the demilitarized zones in subsequent years, and then captured them militarily in the 1967 war.

Syria wants the whole lot back.

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