DECEMBER 27, 1995
As new talks between Syria and Israel begin, Margaret Warner reviews the complicated background of the Northeastern border, then holds a discussion among three veteran journalists. She speaks with Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, David Makovsky of the "Jerusalem Post", and Hisham Melhem of the Lebanese daily "As-Safir."
MARGARET WARNER: Senior representatives from Israel and Syria met today at a secluded mansion outside Washington, D.C.. It was the first face-to-face negotiating session in six months between two countries that have been in a state of war with one another since 1948. We'll talk to three journalists about what's on the table in these talks, but first, some background. The key to resolving their conflict is an area on Israel's Northeastern border with Syria known as the Golan Heights. Israel seized this strategic high ground overlooking the Sea of Galilee and Damascus from Syrian control during the 1967 Mideast War. Forty thousand Syrians moved out of the area. Since then, it has served as a buffer zone from which Israeli soldiers monitor Syrian military movements and guard against attack. For more than 20 years, about 1,000 United Nations troops also have patrolled a demilitarized zone on the Golan's Eastern flank. The Golan Heights is home to some 14,000 Jewish settlers who have built farms, orchards, wineries, and even a ski resort there. But now Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is signalling a new willingness to trade this land for normalized relations with Syria. In a speech to the U.S. Congress two weeks ago, Peres described his hopes for reaching an accord with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
SHIMON PERES, Prime Minister, Israel: (December 12) Let each party yield to the other, each giving consideration to the respective needs of the other, mutually so, he to us, we to him. Without delusion but with resolve we shall negotiate relentlessly until all gaps are bridged, if you are, if Assad is.
MARGARET WARNER: Sec. of State Warren Christopher has tried to bridge these gaps during three years of shuttling between Damascus and Jerusalem. After his most recent visit, he announced a resumption of the peace talks that had broken down in July. In an interview on the NewsHour earlier this month, Christopher spoke about the stakes for both countries in the upcoming talks over the Golan.
WARREN CHRISTOPHER, Secretary of State: (December 19) Syria wants it back but what there is to be gained for Israel, in addition to peace, is normal relationships between the two countries, tourists, trade, all the things that peace brings.
MARGARET WARNER: All this and more are on the table in the talks that began today.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, for more on what's at issue in this new round of talks we turn to three veteran journalists. David Makovsky is diplomatic correspondent for the "Jerusalem Post" and author of the newly-released book Making Peace with the PLO. Hisham Melhem is diplomatic correspondent for the Lebanese daily "As-Safir," and Jim Hoagland is senior foreign correspondent for the "Washington Post" and a syndicated columnist. Welcome, gentlemen. David Makovsky, let's start with you. Why, after six months, are these two sides finally sitting down again?
DAVID MAKOVSKY, Jerusalem Post: Well, I think the new change is really--you take two words- -Shimon Peres. Peres, upon assuming leadership after the Rabin assassination, has decided to turn these talks and make them wide open, focused not just on security per se but on all issues of the table, and just as he was instrumental in Oslo, he is trying to use that Oslo format, secluded, informal discussions, and really get at the root question, not just the question of security, which is vital, but also, is peace going to be every bit as tangible as the territory that Hafez Assad wants to regain? That's the question he's seeking an answer to right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Hisham Melhem, that this is really Peres's, Peres's instigation initiative?
HISHAM MELHEM, As-Safir Newspaper: Well, yes, the tragedy occurred o the Israeli side that has also dropped Rabin's earlier condition not to send negotiators to Washington and meet with the Syrians face to face unless the Syrians accept to send the military experts to discuss, among other things, Israel's maintaining early warning ground stations on the Golan in the context of peace. The Syrians say this is a non-starter. And the Syrians are acknowledging the new tone on the part of the Israeli leadership, and I think they are reciprocating in their own way, saying that we recognize this and that we're open, provided that the Israelis will commit themselves to total withdrawal and in order for us to achieve the formula, total withdrawal in return for total peace. I think Damascus is recognizing that there is a new atmosphere in the region. Also, the Syrians are hoping that the Americans will play a great role, and we have seen indications that the Americans are likely to play a greater role only because Shimon Peres urged them to do so, unlike Mr. Rabin.
MARGARET WARNER: Jim Hoagland, why do you think we're seeing this new impetus from Peres, why now?
JIM HOAGLAND, Washington Post: Well, Peres, himself, seems to feel that Assad has concluded because of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin that there is, after all, a difference between Labor and Likud, that he's much better off trying to deal with Labor before the elections next November in Israel and the United States as well. I think on a large part, that's perhaps a misreading of Assad, who moves very slowly, very methodically. I think Peres has decided as an act of will that he will try to create a new opening and has gone a good ways toward doing that, surprisingly.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, David Makovsky, that this is very important to Peres personally?
MR. MAKOVSKY: Yeah. I mean, Oslo he actually shared with Rabin. This would be his peace. But I think politically he sees it more in regional terms. This is significant (a) because Syria has been Israel's toughest military foe for 47 years. It has held the mantle of Arab nationalism. If you get peace with Syria, you get peace with almost all surrounding Arab states, with two key exceptions, and that is Iran and Iraq, two key Middle East states, I should say, and that--it's very important to isolate these two states because these are the two states who now seem to be in trouble but they're the ones who have nuclear potential. And if you do a deal with Syria, you've got the whole Middle East, and those, those are the only two left, and those two you can isolate, and the other element here is, is Southern Lebanon. And there's been a war of attrition essentially going on for the last 13 years, where Israeli soldiers have been killed. And this is a feeling, if you do a deal with Syria, it's a package deal, it includes Lebanon as well. So while he's always pilloried in Israel that he's too dovish, Peres, and he's doing this maybe because he wants to go to cocktail parties, he's doing this because he thinks this is crucial for Israel on the security level, (a) isolating those two, (b) defusing Southern Lebanon, and (c) hopefully, having a broader peace with, with Syria. So whatever the personal considerations may be, I think an injustice has been done to Peres, which is to say he's doing it only for his own personal pride. I think that's, that's totally unfair.
MARGARET WARNER: let's look at Assad for a minute. Hisham Melhem, is Jim Hoagland right when he says he thinks Peres may be too optimistic in what he expects from Hafez Assad?
MR. MELHEM: I don't think Jim Hoagland is going to change his opinion of Hafez Assad as an intractable foe of Israel, someone who's unwilling to, to reach peace. Assad is not Sadat. Assad is not Arafat. Assad is unlike any other leader in the Arab world. Assad is the only leader in the Arab world to negotiate with the Israelis insisting on being treated on the same par, maintaining, insisting on equilibrium, negotiating with the Israelis from a regional perspective. Syria does hold the key to regional peace, to a comprehensive peace. Lebanon will follow suit. Maybe the Gulf states will open up to Israel probably. Israel is a major player in the Lavonte. Syria is not Jordan. Syria is not weak like Lebanon, and Syria is not weak like the Palestinians. The Palestinians may represent the core of the problem, but the Syrians hold the key to a comprehensive peace. Assad has been saying this for two decades and more. And I think what you have, in case there is peace, the kind of peace, the dignified peace, the honorable peace, the peace of the brave, as Hafez Assad says, if Syria signs this kind of peace with Israel, Assad will deliver on all his promises. He has done that in the past.
MARGARET WARNER: But does he--does he have any particular impetus to do that now, as Peres seems to believe he does?
MR. MELHEM: I think Assad is driven not by emotional considerations or ideological considerations. He's driven by raison d'etre, pure and simple. Assad is a leader who gave Syria a degree of regional influence that it did not witness since the days of Sallah Hadim, 800 years ago. Damascus has a regional influence today that it did not enjoy in modern times. Assad lost the Golan on his watch as a defense minister, would like to regain the Golan on his watch as a president. He will go in history as a major Syrian leader who gave, as I said, Syria this degree of respect in the region, and throughout his long and stormy career, obviously, he did make bold decisions. Some of them were not popular in his own country, but he lived to tell his own people that he was correct. I think he's ready to make that bold peace and sign a peace agreement with the Israelis, provided that the Israelis withdraw completely from the Golan. Assad is not given into theatrics. He is not going to pat Shimon Peres on the shoulder, call him my partner. He's not interested in this. He's very calculating. He's an incredibly smart chess player. He has only one thing in mind, Syria's security and national interest.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jim Hoagland, as we all know, it's always been obvious the outlines of the deal--full peace for full withdrawal in some fashion--but the two sides have always been waiting for the other side to make a promise first. Do you see any indication that now they're ready to move beyond that sort of a stale debate about who's going to go first?
MR. HOAGLAND: I think what has brought Assad back to the table is his sense, one, that Peres is in a weak position negotiating, that he's got an electoral deadline, perhaps he can exploit this, but two, more importantly, Peres has opened up the process. He has brought a new concept to it. He's not talking about just the security arrangements on the Golan, but he said we'll put everything on the table. It is important for Assad to achieve more than the other Arab leaders have achieved, particularly Sadat, and so I think what we're seeing is Assad hoping that he can get Peres to throw Lebanon into the pot, as well as the Golan, that Israel will withdraw from Lebanon and will acknowledge Syria's dominant role in its Arab neighbor. So when Peres said we'll talk about everything, I think Assad heard Lebanon as well as the Golan and is now trying to add that, because, after all, I do disagree with Hisham on one respect. It's not simply Syria's security that Assad is after but also Hafez Al-Assad is now negotiating his place in history. He doesn't have that much longer to rule Syria probably. He can--
MARGARET WARNER: Sixty-five years old.
MR. HOAGLAND: And ailing. He's been sick for some years now. He probably wants to wrap things up in the year or two to come, if he can. He's got a Secretary of State in Warren Christopher, who's more interested in this question, more devoted to it than any of his successors are going to be, and he knows that, Assad knows that. So I think the timing is very important. At the same time, Assad is pure concrete when it comes to negotiating. He will move only inch by inch and only in return for concessions from the other side.
MR. MAKOVSKY: But he's going to--Assad is going to lose this peace, because the Israeli public is not going to go for peace if it is not qualitative peace. I mean, he wants better terms than Sadat. He has to deliver a better peace than Egypt. And the peace with Egypt has been, I would say, a first rate strategic success and a first rate human failure. It's been a peace between states and not a peace between peoples. And this is kind of the Peres difference, so to speak, which is the focus on economics, and namely that if this peace is going to survive beyond the peacemakers, it has to be entrenched in rational economic self-interest, both bilaterally and regionally, and he has to deliver in my view in convincing the Israeli public that he means it when it's not just the treaty. It's not going to be dead letter. And unfortunately, the peace with Egypt, as successful as it has been, I don't want to minimize it in terms of no wars, it has not really--in the last 16 years it hasn't really brought a peace between peoples. And I also think Assad has failed in a sense that by--I got to go to Damascus, and I got to ask him a question.
MARGARET WARNER: You were the first Israeli journalist--
MR. MAKOVSKY: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: --to be permitted.
MR. MAKOVSKY: And I asked the president, I said, "Sir, how can you convince the Israeli public that peace, a full withdrawal from the Golan will lead to genuine peace and not as a launch pad to the next war? What can you say to the public?" And I found his answer very curious. He spoke to me in terms of Rabin, well, what's Rabin's problem, and I found that interesting, like he saw Rabin as the Assad of Jerusalem, and that it's a one-man regime, you make the deal with the man, that's the only thing that counts. And this peace, as you know, Peres has said you either bring it to a national referendum or to early elections. He could lose this. There has not been even 40 percent of the Israeli public that supported it. Many people think it's a suicidal risk, and so Assad, it's not enough, I think, for him to say, I'm not going to be like King Hussein, I'm not going to be like Arafat. There's going to be no hugging and kissing. No one's expecting hugging and kissing, but they want to be convinced that this just--this is not just a piece of paper, and so far, he's done a miserable job.
MR. MELHEM: Arabs are always asked to satisfy Israeli conditions, grievance, to satisfy Israeli grievances. You have to appeal to the Israelis, you have to go to Jerusalem, they forget that Jerusalem is for us occupied, and things of that sort. Look, peace, warm peace, the one you define as warm peace, cannot be decreed from above, even by autocratic leaders.
MARGARET WARNER: But Hisham--
MR. MELHEM: It cannot.
MARGARET WARNER: --let me ask you--what about the point--I hate to interrupt you, but that David raised and is true, that the Israeli leadership has promised that this will go to a referendum in Israel, so in fact, the Israeli public will have to be persuaded. How do you two think maybe this could happen?
MR. MELHEM: Look, there's also public opinion on the Arab world. You may not see a lot of opinion polls, but, but even autocratic rulers in the Arab world have to take that into consideration. Assad cannot go beyond certain limits. His own--and appear as if he's abandoning the basic fundamentals of serious political culture. This, this has been an incredible enmity between two countries. Israelis still occupy Syrian territory. Peace is not going to be imposed from above. The kind of warm peace that the Israelis talk about requires time. Even with Egypt, the country did not see Israel with the same enmity and threat as the Syrian people have been seeing the Zionist movement and Israel since the 1920's and 30's. Even in Egypt, you have "cold peace." In Syria, it's going to take a longer time. And as long as the Israelis talk about dominant economic hole in the Middle East to become the Germany of the Middle East, I'm not going to find too many people on the Arab side willing to engage in--
MARGARET WARNER: Let me let Jim in here.
MR. HOAGLAND: It will take a long time, but it has to begin from the top. It has to begin with Assad finally indicating to his own people that he's prepared to live in peace with Israel and to make a true peace with Israel. The factors we've been talking about would suggest that it may be in Shimon Peres's interest to be negotiating with Syria, to have things looking very promising going into the election, but not actually to have a deal that would be criticized by many parts of the Israeli public opinion. Syria is a police state. It's ridiculous to say that Assad has to worry about public opinion. He has resolved his public opinion problems through brute force, so I don't think that's a major factor in this. But I would agree with Hisham that the Syrian mind set, people's mind set, of rejecting Israel has to be changed. It will take a long time, but that's got to start from the top. Assad does not see it as his job to play public relations role for the Israeli public. He sees that, in fact, as the American job to a great extent. That is one of the reasons he wants the Americans involved here. Both Bill Clinton and Warren Christopher have raised this problem with him, I gather, and he is responding, you go talk to the Israelis, you go talk to the Israeli public, I'm not going to do it. That's not a promising way to start a peace process.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I'm sorry, we're going to have to end this talk process. Thank you all very much.