The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-96 and Beyond

Article excerpt

by Helena Cobban. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999. 235 pp. $19.95.

Just how difficult it is to present an even-handed account of negotiations involving Israel and Syria to an American audience is evident in the very first paragraph of the foreword to this book, penned by the president of the United States Institute of Peace, Richard H. Solomon. Solomon attributes the collapse of almost five years of formal talks between the Israeli and Syrian governments to two factors: "a spate of Palestinian terrorist bombings and pressure on then-prime minister Shimon Peres from his own Labor Party". This assertion is hard to square with Helena Cobban's authoritative and nuanced analysis. Skip the foreword and proceed immediately to the main body of the text. You will be rewarded with a meticulous study of the origins, course, and eventual derailment of Israeli-Syrian negotiations during the 1990s that is almost impossible to put down. I read it in one sitting.

Cobban demonstrates that the series of meetings that took place between Israeli and Syrian representatives beginning in October 1991 accomplished a good deal more than one might think. Most important, the talks confirmed that the government in Damascus is serious about hammering out a permanent peace with Israel. President Hafiz al-Asad may have been uncharacteristically ebullient following his January 1995 summit with President Bill Clinton in Geneva, when he announced that the Syrian people "wanted the peace of the brave, a real peace that thrives, continues, guarantees the interests of all, and gives rights to their owners", but he was clearly not dissembling. Furthermore, the talks indicate that there is considerable congruence between fundamental Israeli and Syrian strategic objectives: as early as the summer of 1993, Cobban observes, "the structure proposed by the Syrians [concerning the final disposition of the Golan] appealed to the obsession with security matters that Rabin and Asad both shared. It thus provided a durable template for their negotiations and continued to be used by the two sides for the rest of Rabin's life". There was even a surprising degree of consensus between Yitzhak Rabin and Hafiz al-Asad regarding how the talks should proceed: both leaders were convinced of the benefits of "the creative use of ambiguity," "a resort to extreme secrecy," and "a very slow and carefully modulated pace" (pp. …