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May 21, 2008: And This Too?

May 21, 2008

Three countries — Israel, Syria and Turkey — released the announcement at the same time:

Israel and Syria have begun peace negotiations , mediated by Turkey:

"The two sides have declared their intention to hold the negotiations in good faith and openly, and hold a serious and continuous dialogue in order to reach a comprehensive peace deal in accordance with the framework set at the (1991) Madrid Conference."

The talks (which are not face-to-face) apparently began Monday.

Following this announcement, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said that Israel had agreed to fully concede the Golan Heights.

Sources from Olmert’s office responded to this: "The negotiations are being held on the basis of the Madrid Conference principles. We do not recall an Israeli commitment at the conference to fully cede the Golan Heights."


The Madrid Conference of 1991: Hosted by Spain and co-sponsored by the US and the USSR after the Gulf War (which was the impetus). After three days of meetings, there were two sorts of negotiations planned. One was a multilateral track in which nations of the Middle East were supposed to discuss issues such as economic development and water. The other was bi-lateral talks between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, and Israel and the Palestinians.

In subsequent years, meetings at the ambassadorial level took place between Israel and Syria in Washington DC. Within the Madrid framework, there was Israeli acknowledgement of a willingness to do some withdrawal from the Golan, but the depth of that withdrawal was not spelled out.

Additionally the Israelis had stipulations regarding the need for full normalization of relations (establishment of embassies and open borders) for a protracted period of time before the agreed upon withdrawal would take place in stages. (The authoritarian Syrian regime — whether under the father, Hafetz Assad, in 1991 or the son, Bashar Assad, now — has shown itself to be vastly resistant to openness and full normalization.)

Then too, there was an Israeli stipulation about security arrangements.


Ultimately, all of the various negotiations — the last upgraded round in January 1999 with US President Clinton, Israeli PM Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara — came to naught.


Only recently government officials were saying that Syrian would have to throw out the terrorist groups such as Hamas from Damascus, stop assisting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and break with Iran before we’d negotiate with them.

Not only is there not a snowball’s chance in hell of all of this happening, we now know that Syria was building an atomic reactor with N. Korean assistance.

So what is going on and what is one to make of this?


The first thing this suggests is that negotiations with the Palestinians are not going well. Olmert is looking for a "success" somewhere, and if one track slows the pattern is to turn to another.

There have been feelers and off-again on-again announcements for some time, but now it is being made public.

If there is a reason to be just a bit alarmed , it has to do with whom Olmert sent to do the negotiating in Turkey: Yoram Turbowitz, Olmert’s chief of staff, and Shalom Turgeman, a foreign policy advisor to Olmert. Two men whom I understand to be far left and willing to cross red lines.


But there are many reasons to not be alarmed.

An announcement from the Prime Minister’s office says that the return of Turbowitz and Turgeman from Ankara is awaited in order "to learn of the achievements in the attempt to launch a communication channel with the Syrians mediated by Turkey."

"An attempt to launch a communication channel" does not exactly represent a done deal. This is, one might guess, largely in the nature of a trial balloon.


While we will have to await responses , my best guess is that this will not be received well. The nation is not in favor of surrendering the Golan.

Not only are we speaking of a much loved and beautiful region of the nation, there are tremendous implications with regard to security because of the heights and — perhaps even more importantly — water. Significant headwaters for the Jordan originate in the Golan, and whatever deal might be struck, turning those headwaters over to Syria is asking for trouble.

The Golan, in contrast to Judea and Samaria , is considered part of Israel proper today, and is governed under Israeli civil law.

The Golan is defined within Jewish law as being part of the Land of Israel, so that laws such as shmita that apply in the land apply there. It was originally part of the Mandate for Palestine (which meant intended for the Jewish homeland) but Britain traded the area to France. It has been under Israeli control now longer than it was ever under Syrian control.


It is understood that we would need to surrender all of the Golan for a peace treaty with Syria: this is Syria’s upfront bottom line. The only thing that might be negotiated is a small area at the foot of the heights that would determine whether Syria came all of the way down to the shore of the Kinneret.

I thus see as disingenuous the statement from the prime minister’s office that negotiations are being done (‘would be done’?) under the terms of the Madrid conference, which doesn’t require full surrender of the Golan.

This is accurate, in so far as it goes: Madrid understandings did not call for this. But as negotiations progressed over the years, the direction in which they went was towards full surrender. What is troublesome is that each time after negotiations were broken off, when they were renewed again, they picked up from where they were left off. This, clearly, is what the Syrians expect now.

And so Olmert and company must be asked if they are being less than forthcoming, and if an understanding regarding full surrender has been made behind closed doors that we’re not being told about. There is very good reason to think this is the case, because Syria would not be interested otherwise.

If the prime minister is not committed to relinquishing all of the Golan under the right circumstances, it suggests posturing that is not serious — a bit of diplomatic game playing.


One other factor must be mentioned here: that of the vulnerability of Olmert’s position because of the specter of an indictment that hangs over his head.

Repeatedly I’ve heard people refer to him as ‘wounded’ — with the follow-up observation that a wounded animal is dangerous. He has less to lose if he realizes he likely has no political future, and so he might be more reckless. On the other hand, even within his own party his support is fading.


As the media is now permitted to reveal more details of the Olmert investigation, we’re being told that he made "personal use" of funds given to him by Talansky. Said one official: "Since Olmert became prime minister, and up until this day, he has failed to register or declare the funds he received from Talansky." Police found Olmert’s accounting of the use of the funds "unconvincing." "Olmert said the money went to cover [campaign] deficits, but he has shown no proof of that."

Olmert is supposed to be questioned on Friday , and then Talansky on Sunday. Olmert’s lawyers are seeking a delay in the deposition to be taken from Talansky, to permit them to better review the evidence so they can properly cross-examine.

A team from the National Fraud Unit will be flying to the States to continue the investigation there.




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