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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


Town Hall Conference Call with Geoffrey Aronson

Israel-Syria Back-Channel Peace Diplomacy

On Wednesday, February 21, 2007, Geoffrey Anderson, Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington D.C., discussed his involvement in a series of secret meetings in Europe between September 2004 and July 2006, in which Syrians and Israelis formulated understandings for a peace agreement between the two neighboring countries.

Thank you very much for having me.  Thank you everyone out there for listening in…Let me give you a brief overview of how the discussions worked and proceeded, and then I’ll talk a little bit about what I consider to be the most important aspect of our efforts, which is the substantive parts which you may have seen covered in the context of the publication of what we call the ‘non-paper’ that was published in full in English in Haaretz about a month or so ago and appeared subsequently in various languages and translations that were not always great or accurate. 

I have known the two principal interlocutors for many years.  Ibrahim Suleiman is an American of Syrian origin, immigrated to the United States in the late 1950’s, subsequently maintained close family and personal connections with people in Damascus.  He was born in an Alawite village and befriended, at that time in his early childhood, people who subsequently became members of the Asad regime, both in the Ba’th party and in the security establishment.  So he was well placed by virtue of that history and the connections he maintained over his professional life to be in contact with the highest echelons in the Syrian regime, both the one represented by Hafez al-Asad and subsequently by his son Bashar.  In addition he was very active in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s on the issue of winning the freedom to emigrate for Syrian Jews and in that context worked with Representative Lee Hamilton in Hamilton’s efforts to make progress on this issue.  I have known Suleiman for several years.  He actually lived quite close to me so it has been easy for me to see him on a frequent basis and to learn from him and his insights about Syrian politics which I’ve used over the years as part of my writing work for some of the publications that were noted earlier.

The principal Israeli interlocutor, Alon Liel, is likewise a longtime friend and acquaintance.  Alon was director general of the foreign ministry during the 1990’s, was Israel’s ambassador to both South Africa and to Turkey, and has written books in Hebrew about each of those experiences.  In the South African-case the transition from apartheid, in the Turkish case-Turkey’s symbolic role as a country with a Muslim majority, which is nonetheless integrated, incrementally at least, into Europe.  I’ve known Alon in the context of the work I’ve done over the years for the Foundation for Middle East Peace.  And I should also say that Alon Liel was also a key mover of Ehud Barak’s first effort to address questions of Syrian when he was prime minister.  Alon arranged Barak’s meeting soon after his election with Patrick Seale, who at that point had just come from Damascus and was the first indication of Barak’s interest in the Syrian track. 

So, each of these gentlemen have had a long history as, in one case a professional involved in Israel’s foreign policy, in the other case, somebody who had maintained and cultivated close ties with the Syrian regime.  They did not know each other and it was my good fortune I guess having been engaged in discussions with each of them over the years to begin to put together an idea for having each of them sit down and talk.  And this was an idea that was percolating during 2003, in the first instance with Suleiman who expressed an interest and expressed a sense that the regime in Damascus was interested in moving a process which had been effectively frozen in the aftermath of the failure of the Geneva talks in the spring of 2000, to unfreeze them and to begin a process of diplomacy which he felt and based on his own sense of where the Syrians were in the context of discussions he held in Damascus- to begin to readdress the issues that have prevented agreements in the past.  So, I brought this interest on Suleiman’s part to Alon Liel who was immediately interested and intrigued by the idea. 

Alon sought the consul of relevant officials in, at that time, the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who expressed no interest on their part in engaging in the discussions, but told Alon that he was a free agent and that he could do as he wished.  It was also our interest, because of Alon’s history in the Labor party, to broaden the spectrum of those parties, at least on the Israeli side who were interested in this.  Alon and I both decided that it would be useful to approach Uzi Arad with an invitation to join this effort.  Uzi was, as some of you may know, a career official in the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, similar to our CIA.  Subsequent to that he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor, when Bibi was prime minister starting in 1996, and someone who is well known on the right side of the policy spectrum in Israel.  I had known Uzi Arad from the context of the work I had done over the years.  He had actually met Suleiman himself in the mid-1990’s.  Suleiman supported the idea of having a broad Israeli spectrum of views present at the discussions that we were trying to organize.  So in one instance it was Suleiman on one side of the table and Alon and Uzi on the other side of the table. 

So having decided the principals involved, our next challenge was to pay for this, to finance it, to arrange for the logistics of flying people somewhere, housing them and so forth, for the two or three days at a time that these conversations would take place.  In the first round we benefited from an American benefactor, Bobby Muller, who’s a supporter of the Democratic party in the U.S. [Muller] began his public policy career as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, was active in the veterans movement in that era, and was very active in organizing the campaign against landmines.  Through the good offices of a friend of mine, Mark Perry, we were able to gain Bobby Muller’s support, to pay for us, to get in the first instance to our preferred location, which happened to be Switzerland, and the Swiss option was presented to us again by chance, a chance meeting that Alon had with a Swiss foreign ministry official who was active in supporting the Geneva track on the Israel-Palestinian front, which I’m sure most of you are familiar with. 

The Swiss very kindly and generously offered their good offices for this first meeting which took place in Bern in September 2004, and the purpose of the first meeting was essentially to get all three principals around the table and to agree there would be a second meeting and what the ground rules would be.  As fate would have it the stars were aligned and each of the parties in turn presented his view of how he saw the issues on the Israeli-Syrian track evolving, designed to determine to what extent this effort of ours could in any way impact that and influence it and there was enough common interest in that that we broke up in a couple of days and decided to meet again with an agenda that I would formulate on the basis of discussions that I would have individually with each of the principals. 

Now, a couple of issues have been raised about what we did and how we did it.  One of the persistent questions is who knew about what we were doing and to what extent was there an official imprimatur for our efforts.  There was an imbalance here, of sorts.  The political system in Israel is such that one can be a former official and maintain a distance from the regime or the political party in power and inform the principals whether they be in the foreign minister’s office or the prime minister’s office without necessarily being an agent or semi-official conveying official policy.  This was certainly the case for both of the Israeli interlocutors and subsequent Israeli participants whose identities have yet to be revealed.  Each of the Israeli parties was a professional with a long experience in issues related to Israel’s foreign policy.  As a matter of course and professional courtesy they would inform those people whom they thought would be important to inform and they did so.  On the Syrian side, in contrast, the regime is such that it is very hard to maintain that same kind of distance and lack of connection.  Certainly for those parties who were prepared to invest time and money, they wanted their own assurances that the parties sitting opposite them was not entirely freelancing and the kind of ideas that were being discussed would find some kind of echo in the respective capitals.  This was the case and it was easily understood that this was the case as far as the Israeli participants were concerned.  There was less certainty about the Syrian interlocutor just because of the nature of the regime but the fact of the matter is, without going into too much detail, that all of the parties who looked at this and checked satisfied themselves that Ibrahim Suleiman was an effective interlocutor for the presentation and discussion of a Syrian point of view about how to resolve issues related to the Golan Heights and beyond. 

So what we did over subsequent meetings, there were six or seven over the course of two years, one of the meetings actually took place in Israel itself.  I brought Suleiman to Tel Aviv in April 2004 I think it was, or 2005, and we spent two or three days there.  We actually went on a tour of the Golan Heights, he met Alon and others there, and this was a visit we managed to keep out of the news and out of the press and it didn’t leak anywhere, and I think that was an important confidence building measure itself.  For those of you who are familiar at all with Israel and its politics it is very hard to keep anything secret for any amount of time let alone two or three years.  We did manage to do that, and the meeting in Israel, like the subsequent meetings in Bern and Geneva as well were focused generally on two subjects.  I should also say that after the first meeting the Swiss kindly offered to assume the entire financial burden of providing what we called ‘good offices,’ which meant that the Swiss would pay for us to travel, would host us while we were in Switzerland, and generally provide the meeting space and the logistics and so forth which they did again with great generosity and professionalism for which we are forever grateful. 

The discussions themselves focused on two main issues.  One, and this was primarily from the Israeli side, was the issue of confidence building measures, and the need for demonstrable actions by Damascus that would take place in the public arena as a way of stimulating discussion and interest in the Syrian track, because for most of the period during which we were engaged in this effort, the issue of Israeli-Syrian talks and diplomacy was absolutely off the table, out of sight, out of mind, hardly considered in the years after the failure of the Geneva talks during the Clinton administration.  So one of the big concerns on the part of the Israelis at the table was how to reconstruct or reenergize this issue and how to put it back on the policy making agenda, and we discussed over the months both in the meetings themselves and subsequently via emails and phone calls and so forth the kinds of confidence building measures that might work and why they might work and how they could be managed and sequenced and so forth.  And suffice it to say they ran the gamut of ideas from encouraging or enabling visits of Israeli religious leaders to Jewish shrines in Damascus, to the creation of some sort of hotline between the offices of the Israeli and Syrian leaderships respectively, to some kind of progress on resolving the return of the remains of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen who was discovered and hung in Damascus in the 1960’s, and whose wife is still surviving and children and so forth and this is certainly one of the more emotive issues that our Israeli interlocutors thought would be helpful. It was also a learning experience for Suleiman and also for the Israelis who became familiar as the months went on with how the Syrians viewed these kinds of measures and the reasons why there was a tremendous degree of hesitancy on their part to engage in them and a great deal of skepticism about this.  Again, the bottom line was that practically speaking the confidence building measure idea really never as yet has gotten off the ground to my satisfaction at least. 

The other issue, and again addressing the substantive achievements of our efforts are best considered under the rubric of this so called ‘non-paper’ that we first drafted in June 2005.  Let me first explain what the ‘non-paper’ was not meant to be.  It was not meant to be a comprehensive recounting or explanation or organization of how a peace treaty between Israel and Syria might look and what it might include.  We did not aspire to reproduce the efforts of the so-called Geneva track on the Israel-Palestinian front in the sense of creating a peace treaty text with attachments and so forth.  Instead what we aspired to do was articulate some basic principals that we thought represented number one, a creative, and number two, a good faith effort to address the outstanding issues between Israel and Syria as a first step but also to try to answer creatively and to satisfy the concerns that had been raised in the past to such a degree as forcing the failure of previous efforts, again most specifically the efforts during the latter part of the Clinton administration to reconcile Israeli and Syrian interests. 

The two issues that we determined were the most important to resolve because of their proven ability to obstruct agreement in the past were water and the use of water resources in the water shed north of the Sea of Galilee, and number two, the question of access for Israel and Israelis around the Sea of Galilee itself.  Both of these have been very important contentious points during the Clinton era and in fact to our understanding were critical to the failure of the talks in the past.  So we thought that our effort to suggest, not certainly the only way out but a well informed, well reasoned and good faith option for resolving these issues was a worthwhile exercise and that’s what we did.  The other issues, the so-called ‘legs of the table’ that Yitzhak Rabin referred to, didn’t in fact occupy much of our time. None of us considered ourselves security experts nor did we aspire to address in detail issues of disarmament and demilitarization and security zones and intelligence facilities and so forth.  Most of this work in fact had already been done in the official track and we sufficed with merely recalling the principal elements of the agreements that had been reached on these topics. 

What we did and what value I believe that we have is, number one, on the question of water where there was agreement by both parties that Israel could control and use the water resources of this area without prejudice to the question of Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights to the June 4 border.  Now for those of you who have looked at this in any detail there is no such line as the June 4 border and it has been understood by experts engaged in this effort for quite some time that the process of determining this border would be a mutual bilateral process perhaps with the expertise of outside parties but nonetheless the principal that Israel would submit to would be the one that Rabin himself articulated, the so called ‘Rabin deposit’ which is Israeli preparedness to withdraw and recognize Syrian sovereignty over the area to the June 4 border which would be mutually determined.  In the context of water resources and Syrian sovereignty over them Israel would have use of these resources without prejudice to the fishing and recreational use of these waters by Syrians themselves.  This was meant to be a reference to the potential reconstitution of some small fishing industry run by Syrian fisherman that existed in the pre-1967 era on the Sea of Galilee and whatever tourism would be organized on the Syrian side of the Sea of Galilee. 

The second point related to solving the question of access around the Sea of Galilee which was perhaps the principal obstruction to agreement in Geneva in 2000, was suggested by Suleiman himself at our first meeting which is the idea of a park whose geographic boundaries we did not address in any detail certainly not in the ‘non-paper’ itself, but a park which would be open and accessible to everyone including Israelis for payment of a standard kind of fee like that anyone would pay to gain entry into a park.  There would be no permanent habitation in the park other than the park personnel and the idea would be that this would enable Israelis to gain unfettered personal access around the Sea of Galilee in a manner that would not prejudice their efforts compared even with those enjoyed by Syrians themselves.  The issue of the militarization of this area would have been addressed in the security protocol so the idea was that this would solve the problem.  The hope was that this would satisfy outstanding Israeli concerns and requirements for access to the Sea of Galilee. 

As I said this paper was finalized more or less in the summer of 2005 and that leads to the next and perhaps final issue that I’ll address which is if we have had this since 2005 why did we keep it in our pocket for so long?  Number one - we didn’t, in the sense that the ‘non-paper’ was communicated through the kinds of channels formal and informal that I discussed earlier in both capitals, and second, it was indeed kept out of the public domain as were our efforts generally, and again, that was because, number one, we thought we would offer it best in that context, but number two, we were also searching for a public environment in which our efforts could make the most decisive contribution.  And as I noted earlier, for much of this period the idea of Syrian-Israeli talks was a non-starter for all sorts of reasons which we ourselves discussed at great length. 

However, this environment changed, and it changed radically as a consequence of the war in Lebanon over the summer of 2006.  Since that period we have been discussing the circumstances under which our efforts would somehow enter the public domain.  The timing of this was in a sense dictated by happenstance.  Suleiman was scheduled to speak at the Herziliya conference, which is an annual conference run by Uzi Arad at Herziliya Center which was scheduled for sometime in January, so this was going to be a public visit on his part to Israel and we thought that this offered a good opportunity to bring to the public’s attention, not only the public in Israel but in the Arab world, in Syria and elsewhere, the basic outlines of our efforts.  In the preceding days and weeks we tried to orchestrate how this could be done to best effect.  That was the origin of the decision to release news of our efforts at least in the first instance in Haaretz which we did and to our great surprise the response was far greater, the bounce was far higher than we thought it would be.   We happened to pick a great news day when not much was happening.  Had we done it the day after, Dan Halutz resigned as chief of staff and Ehud Olmert’s legal problems mounted, so we really lucked out in the sense of the window that we chose to get a wide hearing for the efforts that we had undertaken, most of which you are familiar with in the context of the work and so forth. I will say that while the response in Israel was and remains quite extensive and supportive, and the response in the Arab world has been widespread in terms of press attention. In Europe as well there was a leader in the Economist the week after the Haaretz story [audio unclear]…There has yet to be a single question in the State Department daily briefing about our efforts and I’m not saying this because I think they’re so worthy of attention by the State Department or the Bush Administration but, at the very least I would have thought that reporters would have smelled a story here.  So I’ll stop there, because I’ve said my peace here and I’d be happy to address questions that the audience has to raise.

Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.       

Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.

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