Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israelis Timed Switch to Syrian Track to Avoid U.S. Pressure for Concessions to Palestinians

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israelis Timed Switch to Syrian Track to Avoid U.S. Pressure for Concessions to Palestinians

Article excerpt

Israelis Timed Switch to Syrian Track to Avoid U.S. Pressure for Concessions to Palestinians

There never has been a clearer demonstration that U.S. Middle East policy is made, or successfully manipulated, in Israel than the switch from Ehud Barak's going-nowhere negotiations with Yasser Arafat to his "breakthrough" with Syria. And if it turns out that U.S. peace negotiator Denis Ross also had a hand in the planning, that doesn't change the reality. Ross, profoundly sympathetic to Israel but under pressure to produce a Middle East "Clinton legacy" before U.S. elections next November, may have been at least as anxious as the newly elected Israeli prime minister to obscure the fact that the maximum territorial concessions Barak is prepared to make in the West Bank and Jerusalem are far from the minimum Yasser Arafat can possibly accept.

Previews of the whole scenario began to unfold in the Israel media almost a month before U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's arrival in Israel on the evening of Dec. 7. In fact, diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn wrote on Nov. 16 in the Tel Aviv daily Ha'aretz:

"The difficulties in Israel's relations with the Palestinians were indirectly reflected in numerous reports in the Israeli press of an imminent breakthrough on the Syrian track. All Israeli governments used to think that courting Damascus would reduce the price of a settlement with the Palestinians. On this point there is no difference between Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu or Barak."

Political analyst Yoel Marcus wrote in the same paper on the same day: "Peace with Syria heads Prime Minister Barak's priorities. This was also true of Rabin and Netanyahu, who were willing to give virtually anything to obtain that peace."

By Dec. 3 Israeli peacenik Haim Hanegbi was writing in Tel Aviv's elitist Ma'ariv: "One should be a complete fool to believe that Prime Minister Barak can keep his magic target date and make peace with the Palestinians by September 2000. In fact, Barak does not speak of peace at all, but of a `permanent arrangement' in contrast with the 1993 Oslo accord, which specifically refers to a `lasting peace.' Barak is talking about peace with Syria and Lebanon, but not with the Palestinians."

On Dec. 6, Ha'aretz editorialized: "Madeleine Albright will be arriving in Jerusalem to assess the status of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Three months after President Clinton succeeded in convincing Chairman Yasser Arafat to accept Prime Minister Ehud Barak's ambitious schedule, the gaps between the parties are too wide for an outside party to be of any help. Even if Arafat sees fit to accept Barak's proposals, it is difficult to imagine that he would be able to win the support of the Palestinian public for an agreement that does not take into account their genuine needs."

Then, with Madeleine Albright due to arrive that evening, Ma'ariv analyst Hemmi Shalev wrote on Dec. 7: "The gaps between Jerusalem and Damascus have been narrowed considerably, and a breakthrough is possible. It is therefore advisable not to be caught unprepared when the current lull is suddenly shattered by a dramatic development."

So Secretary Albright arrived in Israel and then went on to Syria. From there she telephoned President Bill Clinton, and he announced from Washington the forthcoming resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened if you recall a little history. After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad said he would agree to resume talks with Israel only from the point they had reached with Rabin, and that Rabin had agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denied that any such Israeli concession had been promised, and there things stood until the Clinton announcement.

For non-rocket scientists, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa said in his Dec. …

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