|PATH TO PEACE|
December 9, 1999
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this week, Secretary of State Albright headed to the Middle East for yet another round of peace talks. On Tuesday, she met with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus, a day later after a session with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, she emerged optimistic about the prospects of a land-for-peace deal.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State: We have, in fact, I think, as I said, a greater sense of optimism because with our meetings both here and in Damascus, I have a sense that there's a desire to seize the moment.
RAY SUAREZ: And yesterday President Clinton announced that Israel and Syria would reopen talks after three years and try to resolve one of the most intractable of the MidEast disputes.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The talks will be launched here in Washington next week. Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara. After an initial round for one or two days they will return to the region and intensive negotiations will resume at a site to be determined soon thereafter.
RAY SUAREZ: It was only in 1995, years after many of the other warring parties in the MidEast had made peace, that Syria agreed to talk with Israel at a remote U.S. site. But the talks broke off a few months after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in October of 1995. The diplomacy was frozen over contrasting interpretation of Rabin's offer to Syria before his death. Syrians said Rabin promised to return the Golan Heights which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 MidEast war and later annexed. The Israelis countered that no such definitive promise had been made. President Clinton side- stepped that complication by saying the talks will be resumed from the point where they left off. The Israeli-Syrian diplomatic thaw began last spring when Barak became Israel's new prime minister. His election was greeted by favorable comments from Syria's President Assad and talks from both sides about breaking their impasse. The new prime minister also made a promise concerning Lebanon, the majority of which has been under Syrian control for 20 years. The Israelis currently occupy a small slice of the country, but Barak pledged a troop withdrawal from the territory by July 2000. Barak suggested that negotiations over Lebanon be coupled with the Golan Heights talks. So far there's no word whether this will happen. Following the Clinton announcement yesterday, Syrian President Assad pledged in a statement, quote, to exert all possible efforts to achieve a comprehensive and just peace in the region. For his part, Barak acknowledged today that upcoming negotiations won't be easy.
PRIME MINISTER EHUD BARAK, Israel: (speaking through interpreter) Assad is not Israeli. He was a bitter enemy in the battlefield and I don't assume that he will be an easy opponent around the negotiation table, but he is a strong leader. Only he can bring the peace in the name of the Syrian people and put an end to our state of war.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the upcoming talks between Israel and Syria, we turn to Yitzhak Ben-Horin, Washington bureau chief for one of Israel's daily newspapers. "Ma'ariv," and Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago; he also served as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during their talks with Israel. Yitzhak Ben-Horin, was this in the air? Was there any idea that something as surprising as yesterday's announcement was on its way?
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: First of all, I must tell you that I try to put faith like a professional journalist but first and foremost I am an Israeli, and I am very excited about what is going on now and a little bit nervous as well -- excited because our bitter enemy may be at last decide to go the road - you know -- for peace, comprehensive peace. At the same time we just want to see -- to realize if our security needs will match.
RAY SUAREZ: But was there any stirrings in diplomatic circles that this was about to come? Was there any domestic event that opened the door, made this possible?
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: First of all, I'm sure that everybody in Washington was surprised, including the Arab diplomats, Israeli diplomats. I believe that the Americans themselves, even Albright and her delegation, when they first decided to go to Damascus, they decided to shake the hands of Assad to realize if he is strong enough. They didn't even know if his health is good enough to go with the peace process. I believe that Assad surprised them, as always. He's a surprising man and he surprised them this time.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Khalidi, all sides seem to have an interest in starting to move this morning forward and soon.
RASHID KHALIDI: I think all sides realize that they have a window opportunity that will close very quickly. The Syrian president clearly wants to settle this before the issue of the succession becomes a critical one. Prime Minister Barak wants to settle it while he still has a mandate from the Israeli people. And I think that both sides realize that before the United States goes into the prolonged transition from one presidency to another, it would be very, very wise to get as much of this done as possible. So, I think there's a lot of pressure on all sides.
RAY SUAREZ: There have been several voices speaking out from Israel opposed to even the hint of returning the border to the River Galilee.
RASHID KHALIDI: To the Sea of Galilee.
RAY SUAREZ: To the Sea of Galilee. Excuse me. Does this cause problems before the talks even get underway?
RASHID KHALIDI: I think that there is something close to a consensus on all sides that if there is going to be peace in the Middle East there will have to be a return to the June 4th boundaries between Israel and Syria. I think those voices in Israel that oppose such a land-for-peace deal, in effect, are opposing peace. I think there's a solid majority behind the prime minister for peace and for the sacrifices from one point of view that this is going to entail. From the Syrian point of view too. I think everybody understands that there's going to have to be diplomatic relations between the two countries, reduction of forces, early warning stations. I think both sides understand the basic components of this deal and that there's a solid majority on both sides for a deal of that sort.
RAY SUAREZ: Yitzhak Ben-Horin, isn't this very different from the territories on the West Bank though? Unlike an occupied area, this was annexed, made part and parcel of Israel and now some 18,000 Israeli citizens live there.
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: It was not annexed to Israel. We put Israeli law, because there are 15,000 Israelis living there, so we put the law in order to allow them to live according to Israeli law, but there was not any annexation from this territory. Now we have to do two things, two obstacles that Prime Minister Barak will face: First one will be to get the majority of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, namely 61 votes, it's enough for him to pass a resolution for peace and to give back the Golan Heights. Secondly, Barak promised the Israelis in the election that he will go to a referendum for peace with Syria and for peace with the Palestinians. He intends to do it. It looks like basically most of the Israelis are very much for the peace process. They are very tired of wars. If Barak will persuade the Israelis that it's a safe peace, they'll go for it.
RAY SUAREZ: But seeing pictures on television of settlements being emptied -- of people being returned to the rest of Israel is not palatable for any Israeli politician I would think.
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: You are talking about the Golan Heights?
RAY SUAREZ: Yes.
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: Most of the voters in the Golan Heights voted for Barak not for Netanyahu. Most of the settlers in the Golan Heights are people from the Labor Party. They are not... It's not the same right wing of the people in the West Bank. It's completely different kind of people. I don't see any major threat to the peace process from those guys.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Khalidi, there's been a lot of talk about Israel and what it has to give in these negotiations. What does Syria have to give? Assad was the defense minister when the boundaries changed after the '67 war. You mentioned he wants to get some of this done for his own legacy. What's at stake for Syria?
RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the basic deal is land for peace. That's what 242 embodies. Syria will have to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Syria will have to probably also accept a number of minor limitations on its sovereignty like reduction of forces agreements. These will be mutual. They may not be equal, however. There will have to be early warning stations of some sort and some international presence on Syrian soil. So Syria will have to bring to an end to the state of war with Israel -- will have to accept normal diplomatic relations with Israel and will - as I say -- have to accept some minor limitations on its sovereignty relating to the arrangements for the peace, but the pay-off is that finally after almost 33 years Syria will regain this territory that was occupied in 1967. I would agree with Mr. Ben-Horin. I think that the problem of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are more infinitely complicated than the problem of the Golan Heights and not just because of the settlers, because I think that in Israel there's closer to a national consensus that peace with the rest of the Arab world which is what peace with Syria means is worth giving up the Golan Heights. I'm not entirely sure that there is a consensus in Israel for the very difficult issues relating to refugees or Jerusalem or settlements or borders that are going to be involved where the West Bank and Gaza Strip are concerned.
RAY SUAREZ: We haven't talked about Lebanon yet. And I'm wondering how much peace with Syria holds the key to a wider, comprehensive peace that will build down the pressures on that border with Israel.
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: Let me comment and say that between Israel and Syria there are borders, the '67 borders and there are the '73 borders and it's two countries and it's quite easy to get along. With the Palestinians it's more complicated because there is no Palestinian state yet, never been a Palestinian state. There are no borders between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There are some Palestinians that are living in Israel proper so it's very complicated. Going to the Lebanon problem, Lebanon is an occupied territory by Syria. So I don't see any much problem for the Syrians to dictate peace with Israel. So I see very quite soon after the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, you can see a line of the Israeli-Lebanese process.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Khalidi.
RASHID KHALIDI: There's one issue relating to Lebanon which is a broader issue. This is the issue of the Palestinian refugees. There are over 300,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who was driven out of Israel - driven out of Palestine in 1948 during the war as part of the creation of Israel. Their presence in Lebanon poses a serious, some people would say an existential problem for Lebanon. There's unanimity in Lebanon that it is unacceptable that this problem be resolved at the expense of Lebanon. The Palestinians agree. They desire the return of compensation as laid down in U.N. resolutions. And so while I agree the problem between Israel and Lebanon can be solved fairly easily with an Israeli withdrawal and a return to the international frontier, which both Lebanon and Israel accept, I don't think that it will be quite so easy because there is this issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They are -- the Palestinian refugees are the 3.5 or 4 million living outside of what is now Israel and the occupied territories -- they're the Palestinian refugees in by far the most difficult circumstances.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree?
YITSHAK BEN-HORIN: Not at all. For Syria, even the Golan Heights is not the most important thing in this deal. The most important thing for Assad is if he's willing to lead his country in 19th the century, as, you know, in the past with North Korea or Cuba, whether he is willing or if he is willing at last to join the world, meaning the rest of the world. I believe he has come to the conclusion that he needs America and western investment in Syria, first and foremost, to get Syria out of the State Department. I think it is for the Syrians even more important than to get back the Golan Heights.
RAY SUAREZ: Yitzhak Ben-Horin, Rashid Khalidi, good to talk to you both.