Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Balks at Peace - Again

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Balks at Peace - Again

Article excerpt

Israel Balks at Peace -- Again

Hope of an early peace between Israel and Syria went up in flames last February as Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon, while talks between Israel and the Palestinians that were supposed to culminate in a final agreement on Feb. 13 went into deep freeze. Neither setback should have come as a surprise. For the first 30 years of Israel's existence its leaders sabotaged or rejected outright almost every opportunity to make peace with the Arabs in favor of expanding Israel's borders. More recently, Israel has entered peace negotiations while determined to retain the territories it captured in war -- a goal that makes any agreement all but impossible.

The 1949 Lausanne Peace Conference ended in failure when Israel refused to discuss the Arab countries' chief concern -- the return of nearly half a million Palestinian refugees. In February 1955, shortly after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had indicated his willingness to discuss peace with the Israelis, the Israeli army attacked the Gaza Strip and killed 39 Egyptian soldiers and civilians, making such a meeting impossible.

In 1971 Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, offered peace with Israel in exchange for return of the Gaza Strip and Sinai, which Israel had captured in 1967. The Israelis, bolstered by an influx of American arms, refused to make any concessions, and thus helped to trigger the 1973 October War. Israel finally returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1979 after the United States agreed to station a peacekeeping force in the area. In 1982, after the PLO agreed to recognize Israel and accepted a two-state solution, Israel violated a year-long cease-fire with the Palestinians by invading Lebanon, laying siege to Beirut, and attempting to destroy the PLO as an organization.

As the year 2000 began, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat seemed prepared to reach a settlement. In early January, Israeli and Syrian negotiators met for eight days in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and agreed to meet again on Jan. 19 to work out details of a confidential "framework agreement" both sides were thought to have accepted before leaving Shepherdstown. But a week before that meeting was to have been held, a document was leaked to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz revealing that Syria had made major concessions on security issues and the normalization of relations, while Israel had made no commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

According to later reports, the issue of Israel's withdrawal had hardly been discussed. Publication of the document was highly embarrassing to Assad, who has made return of the Golan to the banks of Lake Tiberius (the Sea of Galilee, Lake Kinneret) the principal requirement for peace with Israel. The State Department, aware of Assad's inevitable reaction, called the leaks "damaging."

In releasing the details of the Shepherdstown meeting just after a huge rally in Tel Aviv protesting withdrawal from the Golan, Barak may have hoped to convince Israelis that any return of land to Syria would be offset by Syria's acceptance of stringent security requirements and that Israel had the upper hand in the negotiations. But his effort to appease public opinion at home by portraying the Syrians as having knuckled under had its predictable effect. Assad immediately called off further negotiations until Israel made a written commitment in advance to withdraw fully from the Golan. In the flurry of diplomatic meetings on the Middle East that subsequently took place in Egypt, Switzerland, and finally Moscow, the two nations conspicuous by their absence were Syria and Lebanon.

"JUST PUNISHMENT"

Hopes that negotiations between Israel and Syria would resume quickly were further eroded in late January after Hezbollah forces fighting to end Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon assassinated Col. Akl Hashem, second in command of Israel's surrogate South Lebanon Army. …

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