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

By Perthes, Volker | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Perthes, Volker, The Middle East Journal


The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-96 and Beyond, by Helena Cobban. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999. xv + 196 pages. Notes to p. 226. Index to p. 235. $19.95 paper.

Helena Cobban's book is a straightforward, clearly written study of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks between 1991 and 1996. The study is mainly based on media reports and comments, the published accounts of some of the participants in the negotiations, and interviews with these participants and with other, primarily American and Israeli, as well as some Syrian officials and observers.

Cobban tracks the negotiations from the 1991 peace conference in Madrid to the bilateral Israeli-Syrian talks at the Wye Plantation in 1996. Since Israel's then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, did not seek a territorial compromise, nothing moved on the Syrian track before the elections of 1992 that brought Yitzhak Rabin to power. Rabin was intent on finding a solution with Syria; and progress was achieved in spite of serious setbacks. Rabin's strategy, Cobban judges, was marked by ambiguity, extreme secrecy, and a slow pace. She suggests that he may have "wasted time" (p. 186) on the Syrian track by allowing for repeated hiatus periods in the negotiations and exchanges with Damascus, not least so in the wake of the Oslo agreement of September 1993. By mid-1994, however, Syria had received satisfactory answers from Rabin to its questions regarding the hypothetical offer of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. On the basis of this understanding and a clearer Syrian commitment to peaceful and normal relations, a first meeting of the Chiefs of Staff became possible, followed by diplomatic discussions that led to the famous paper on Aims and Principles of Security Arrangements. With this paper-which both sides agreed upon in May 1995-a decisive period of negotiations began, involving not only a second meeting of the Chiefs of Staff but also, after Rabin's murder and Peres' consequent accession as Prime Minister, the Wye Plantation negotiations. Cobban describes these talks, which started in the last days of 1995 and were broken off in March 1996, as a "hopeful new experiment" (p. 129). Wye was different from previous negotiations both in form and in substance: The US team was fully involved as a third party (at the urging of the Syrians); parallel but joined sub-- negotiations of all relevant topics took place; a leaders' team (composed of the heads of the three delegations) emerged; and the "ground rule that nothing was agreed on until everything was agreed on allowed a considerable degree of progress on points previously untouched," such as the question of normalization. …

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