Helena Cobban Discusses Syrian-Israeli Negotiations

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HELENA COBBAN DISCUSSES SYRIAN-ISRAELI NEGOTIATIONS

At the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine author Helena Cobban discussed on Oct. 15 her book Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-1996 and Beyond, soon to be released by the United States Institute for Peace. Amid renewed hopes for the resumption of negotiations between the two countries, Cobban described how close Israel and Syria had come to achieving a final settlement in 1996.

In August 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was passing messages between Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin regarding Israel's plans for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Cobban said Christopher kept careful notes of his meetings with each leader. The countries had reached the hypothetical stage, "if we give you what you want, will you give us what we want?"

There was what Cobban called a "conditional assumption that Israel would withdraw to its pre-June 4, 1967 borders." In May 1995, Rabin's government agreed to the text of a document that was called "Aims and Principles of a Security Arrangement" which was leaked by his political rival Binyamin Netanyahu to derail negotiations. Rabin then decided to put the negotiations on the back burner "until after he had gotten what he hoped would be a firmer mandate from the electorate."

In his last Israeli TV interview before his assassination on Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin described negotiations between Syria and Israel as "reciprocal," unlike negotiations with the Palestinians. Succeeding Rabin as prime minister, Shimon Peres decided to take the "high and fast flight to peace" not waiting for Israeli elections scheduled for October 1996. Peres was even prepared to "give up the atom," referring to Israel's nuclear capabilities for the first time in public, in a bold approach to peace. That approach didn't last long.

Syria was prepared to offer, in exchange for land, a high degree of normalization with Israel, including economic exchanges, generous access to water for Israelis, and acceptance of "some degree of asymmetry on security arrangements," Cobban said. "But Peres got sandbagged by colleagues in his own party and in his own government. Unlike Rabin, who told his generals to take a hike, Peres couldn't stand up to the military. …