Friday, September 15, 2006

Clinton: Syrian-Israeli Peace Negotiations

“On January 3 [2000], I went to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to open peace talks between Syria and Israel.”
After having finished reading Bill Clinton’s mammoth memoirs I decided to type up the sections related to the intense efforts and peace negotiations between the Israelis and Syrians conducted under the auspices of the Clinton administration. I’ve provided a pdf version of the text here: Syrian-Israeli Peace Negotiations and I recommend that all our readers read it in its entirety (its not that long). I’ve also compiled a series of quotes from the section in this post, along with significant (or so I tell myself) analysis from myself on the Lebanon question on my personal blog: Cedar Mountain.

The Clinton administration’s intense efforts at resolving the Middle East conflict were unparalleled in US history. Although the text provided in my pdf file can be considered to be complete with respect to the Shepherdstown negotiations, there are two factors one should keep in mind while reading the text (and the quotes). The first is the Palestinian peace track, an important and ongoing factor in the entire peace process and throughout the negotiations at Shepherdstown, and perhaps more importantly, the May 25th, 2000 Israeli unilateral withdrawl from south Lebanon. The total relevance of this withdrawl is tackled in my analysis piece based on the pdf text, the link to it is: The Lebanese Bargaining Chip. A majority of the negotiations were held after this withdrawl and its significance should always be maintained when addressing the section 'after June 4'. Anyway I won't blabber anymore, here are the quotes, try to read the entire pdf file, and if you find either incomplete...then read the book!

“Ehud Barak had pressed me hard to hold the talks early in the year… he was prepared to give the Golan Heights back to Syria as long as Israel’s concerns could be satisfied about its early-warning station on the Golan and…the Sea of Galilee”

“Barak had to contend with a very different Israeli electorate from the one Rabin had led. There were many more immigrants, and the Russians in particular were opposed to giving up the Golan… They also considered Syria to be no threat to Israel. They weren’t at peace but were not at war either. If Syria attacked Israel, Israel could win easily. Why give up the Golan?”

“[Barak] soon began to worry about the political consequences of giving up the Golan without having prepared the Israeli public for it. He wanted some cover: the resumption of the Lebanon track to be conducted by the Syrians in consultation with the Lebanese; the announcement by at least one Arab state of an upgrade of relations with Israel; clear security benefits from the United States; and a free-trade zone on the Golan.”

“On the first issue, Assad hedged, saying the Lebanese talks should resume once some headway had been made on the Syrian track.”

“It quickly became apparent that the two sides were not that far apart on the issues. Syria wanted all the Golan back but was willing to leave the Israelis a small strip of land, 10 meters (33 feet) wide, along the border of the lake; Israel wanted a wider strip of land. Syria wanted Israel to withdraw within eighteen months; Barak wanted three years. Israel wanted to stay in the early-warning station; Syria wanted it manned by personnel from the UN or perhaps from the U.S. Israel wanted guarantees on the quality and quantity of water flowing form the Golan into the lake; Syria agreed as long as it got the same guarantees on its water flow from Turkey. Israel wanted full diplomatic relations as soon as withdrawal began; Syria wanted something less until the withdrawal was complete.”

“The Syrians came to Shepherdstown in a positive and flexible frame of mind, eager to make an agreement. By contrast, Barak, who had pushed hard for these talks, decided, apparently on the basis of polling data, that he needed to slow-walk the process for a few days in order to convince the Israeli public that we was being a tough negotiator… I was, to it mildly, disappointed… Barak had not been in politics long, and I though he had gotten some very bad advice. In foreign affairs, polls are often useless; people hire leaders to win for them, and it’s the results that matter”

“…we began meetings on border and security issues. Again, the Syrians showed flexibility… I was encouraged, but it quickly became apparent that Barak still had not authorized anyone on his team to accept June 4, no matter what the Syrians offered... What would it take? Barak said he wanted to resume the Lebanese negotiations… Shara was in no mood to hear this. He said that Shepherdstown was a failure, that Barak was not sincere, and that he would have to say as much to President Assad…the latest bracketed text of our treaty leaked in the Israeli press, showing the concessions that Syria had offered without getting anything in return. Shara was subjected to intense criticism at home…For the time being we were stumped”

“On the way home [from Pakistan]… I flew to Geneva to meet with President Assad…Compared with his stated position at Shepherdstown, Barak was now willing to accept less land around the lake, though he still wanted a lot, 400 meters (1,312 feet); fewer people at the listening station; and a quicker withdrawal period. Assad didn’t want me even to finish the presentation. He became agitated and, contradicting the Syrian position at Shepherdstown, said that he would never cede any of the land, that he wanted to be able to sit on the shore of the lake and put his feet in the water…Barak had made a respectable offer. If it had come at Shepherdstown, an agreement might have emerged. Now, Assad’s first priority was his son’s succession… After we parted in Geneva, I never saw Assad again.”

“In less than four years, I had seen the prospects of peace between Israel and Syria dashed three times: by terror in Israel and Peres’ defeat in 1996, by the Israeli rebuff of Syrian overtures at Shepherdstown, and by Assad’s preoccupation with his own mortality.” [pp 903-904].


  1. Interesting stuff. I remember the time of Barak. I actually voted for him.

    I remember him growing desperate when he was facing problems on all negotiations fronts. At some point he was crossing all red lines even for the israeli leftists. At some point he was apparently ready to some compromise even on the right of return. He sealed his fate in my eyes at that moment.

    One thing is sure. If at that time he was struggling to mobilize support for deal on the Golan, today the situation is even worse.

    Most israelis today will support peace deal with Lebanon. Many with the palestinians if Hamas will get out of the picture. But i think very few people would consider any compromise with the syrians. I think this regime is disliked and mistrusted to the same degree in Israel as in Lebanon.

  2. Yeah reading the text, Clinton appears to have a low opinion of Barak's stance throughout the Shepherdstown talks.

    I personally, was at first shocked that Barak turned down the possibility of peace with Syria. But as the analysis I put up indicates, I think it was, perhaps, a wise move.

  3. I think Barak was a lousy negotiator.

    I dont think he was not serious about the deal with Syria. My impression is that he was rashing forth with his program and there was hardly a thing he got right. It started from his mismanaged pullout from Lebanon and all the way until he lost the office.

    Apparently the intelligence services were warning him that the oslo would explode around the right of return controversy if he would try to finalize the deal at that time. I dont know what he was thinking at that time but he certainly came to the palestinians with concessions nobody expected him to do. But it did nt help him much and it ended just as everything that he tried

  4. The pullout was definitely mismanaged. I mean Israel could have obtained some benefits from pulling out, like it did in this war (kinda) but instead decided to take the unilateral route.

    Barak was a hard-headed military man without the patience needed for politics.

    Clinton wrote profusely about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, finally noting that it was Arafat's reluctance to accept the massive conciliations offered by Barak. I obviously didn't type up the whole text on the Palestinians but I did write something which I might dig up and post as an appendix to this post.

  5. Barak was a hard-headed military man without the patience needed for politics.


    That was an impression... That he tried to finish it all in one go.

    Though he also had a very ambitious reform plan like kicking out the religious orthodox from some ministries to finally separate state and religion. He probably wanted to move to it as soon as possible because the religious parties here are exploiting the rift between the right and left about what to do with the israeli-arab conflict. On themselves they dont have a significant electorate.


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