Briefing on Track II Peace Dialogue Between Israel and Syria, 2004-2007 By Geoffrey Aronson, Director for Research and Editor of Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace (Note: Since 2004, Jeff Aronson has been part of an unofficial Israeli-Syrian dialogue on an Israeli-Syrian peace that resolves the minor issues that ultimately defeated peace talks between Israel and Syria in the 1990’s, including the issue of land Syria claims to the East of Lake Galillee. Following is a full transcript of Aronson’s talk on this Track II process, including questions and answers, at the Carnegie Endowment, Washington, February 12, 2007.)
Phil Wilcox, President, Foundation for Middle East Peace: Welcome. As you know, for decades private citizens, retired government officials and others have been involved in informal, unofficial “Track II” diplomacy. There was a time when the US government opposed this. Indeed, there is a statute, which I think is still on the books, called the Rogers Act, which makes it a felony for private citizens to engage in diplomacy. Fortunately, this has been ignored for a long time, and a great deal of creative work has been done by private citizens of many countries to try to prepare the ground for official diplomacy and peacemaking. Track II diplomacy has been a prominent in the Arab-Israeli conflict. To mention a few examples, there were decades of private contacts between private Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs in the ‘70s and ‘80s. American citizens were deeply involved in a process that led to the commitments of the PLO in the late 1980’s to recognize Israel, forswear violence, and accept resolution 242.
One of the most stunning examples of Track II Diplomacy were the Geneva Accords which were developed by a group of distinguished private Israelis and Palestinians and created what many people still think contains the substance of what an official Israeli-Palestinian peace will ultimately look like. More recently, a little known but very interesting Track II process between Israel and Syria has been going on for three years. I donâ€™t think it is complete by any means. It has involved Syrians, Israelis, Swiss, Turks, my colleague, Jeff Aronson, and another distinguished American, Mr. Abraham Soliman, who is here today. Mr. Soliman has devoted many years to improving relations between the United States and Syria and he is deeply committed to ArabIsraeli peace. This Track II process has been going on for three years. It was made public in midJanuary in a series of articles by Akiva Eldar of Haâ€™aretz, and there were other articles in the Israeli Press and a good piece in The Economist. We have provided the texts of these articles in handouts today. This Track II exercise has taken place in the context of overtures from Bashar al-Assad hinting that Syria was ready for renewed peacemaking with Israel. Oddly enough, the current American administration has discouraged Israel from pursuing this; whereas I know of no case, historically, where we have stood in the way of a potential process that could lead to peace between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. This Track II activity also comes at a time when the Iraq Study Group and many American experts and politicians in both parties have advocated US and Israeli reengagement with Syria. Syria as one of several important keys to help ease the process of a resolution in Iraq, peace and stability in Lebanon, a long-sought peace between Israel and Syria, and a final status agreement for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Geoffrey Aronson: Thank you, Phil. Thank you all for being here. Thank you, Abe Soliman, for coming as well. The fact of your presence here is proof that when a tree falls in the forest there is somebody there to pay attention. In that sense, I think you have distinguished yourselves from the general response here in the United States in general, and in Washington in particular, to news of our efforts. Just to take one example, which I think illustrates this lack of attention that has been paid, there has yet to be one question in the State Department daily briefing on the efforts that we have been involved in. Not one. This is an issue that has excited a lot of interest in Israel in the Middle East, in Europe as well. And perhaps as a result of my appearance here, some of you who may be State Department reporters may feel it worth your time and that of the US government to at least address the issue of the prospects for engaging in a dialogue between Israel and Syria. Let me begin by noting that the responses to our meetings can be divided into, roughly, two. One focused on the drama: Who met where, how many people, who knew, when, and so forth; that occupied about 95 percent of the speculation and the reporting on this issue. The other five percent was devoted to the substance of what we addressed and what I consider to be the very creative and the very committed efforts on the part of the principals themselves to address and to overcome the obstacles that have prevented agreement between Israel and Syria in the past. If you will permit me, I'll turn those tables a bit today and speak more about the substance and less about the drama. I will start with the drama. We met over a period of three years in Switzerland at least six or seven times, and, of course, there were numerous discussions among and between us in the intervals. I live here outside of Washington, DC; Abe Soliman lives as well here. So, we were in frequent personal contact. I have had an opportunity to travel frequently to the region
and, once there, was able to, again, maintain effective communication with the principal interlocutor on the Israel side, Alon Liel [a retired Israeli diplomat], and others who were part of the track for a shorter period of time. Track II discussions are meant to be deniable; these are unofficial contacts. The people around the table never committed themselves, or described themselves, as officials. There was always an understanding that this was an unofficial dialogue. It was also understood, however, that the people sitting around the table were serious, committed individuals with whom one was not wasting time by traveling long distances for meetings that lasted three, four, or five or only six hours. In the course of our work, the seriousness of the interlocutors was checked; it was checked by the principals themselves; it was checked by third parties, whether the Swiss or the Turks, and all of whom came to the conclusion that this was an exercise worthy of their attention and, in some cases, worthy of their time and money. What was my role? I knew both Abe Soliman; I knew Alon Liel. They did not know each other. They were traveling in parallel universes, and I was the link that brought them together. I had been discussing with Mr. Soliman off and on for many years the need -especially in the aftermath of the failed talks at Geneva almost seven years ago, of the need to create some sort of framework for resuming an effective dialogue between Israel and Syria. The same with Alon Liel; Alon, former director general of Israelâ€™s Foreign Ministry, former Israeli ambassador to Turkey and South Africa, author of books both about the road away from apartheid in Syria and also the Turkish experiment as a Muslim country with democracy, and also someone who arranged the meeting between the new prime minister, Ehud Barak and
Patrick Seale [the British journalist and Syria expert] soon after Barak was elected prime minister. How one might start the ball rolling in some fashion -- and it was only after many months beginning in 2003 of the discussions with each of these gentlemen in turn that we hit upon a plan. The plan was to get the two of them plus Uzi Arad, who was formerly Prime Minister Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser, someone who has been engaged in issues related to Syria for quite sometime -- around the table, and see where that would go. We had the advantage in our first meeting of financing our extensive travel requirements by a US benefactor, Bobby Mueller, who may be known to some of you who as someone who has been very active in the campaign against landmines. And we benefited greatly from his support. We met in Switzerland, established the ground rules, which were, again, that this was an unofficial dialogue; that the people around the table were there in their personal capacity, but that they were in a position to be credible interlocutors and would, to the best of their efforts, seek to share this information with people in the official tracks if the opportunity presented itself. The importance of a first meeting in these efforts is to have a second meeting, and we had a second meeting. As a result of Alon Liel’s chance meeting with the Swiss representatives who have taken part in financing the Geneva discussions between Israelis and Palestinians, we managed to bring in the Swiss and to win their agreement to provide what are called “good offices” -- logistics, travel, and so forth; something that they succeeded in admirably and for which we are forever grateful. At that point, they were able to assume the financial burdens associated with this effort and we met subsequently on five or six occasions. We did not aspire to write a peace treaty. We did not try to imitate the Geneva experience where they were dotting i’s and crossing t’s and
trying to write a comprehensive agreement with annexes and maps. What motivated us were two or three things. The first was, again, to try to focus upon the issues that had proven to be obstacles in the past; number two, to try to come to some sort of win-win understanding of how those obstacles might be overcome; and, number three, to instigate a public dance, if you will, between Israel and Syria, focused on confidence building measures that might jumpstart attention to this issue. When we first started this, the issue of discussions between Israel and Syria was nowhere on the agenda; it was absolutely a non-issue. This was the middle of the intifada. There was a war raging in Iraq. There was absolutely no public debate in Israel about this â€“ zero, nor in the US. In contrast, however, I think the Syrian view was fairly consistent. There was a readiness to engage in an official dialogue. That was a public stance, which, unfortunately, at that point had not been heeded. And we were well aware of this and in fact were encouraged by the idea that were the US and Israel to reassess the prospects for an agreement, they would at the very least find a basic readiness on the part of Damascus to engage. And to go back to the last point, if there was an operational aspiration on our part, it was to move beyond a Track II discussion and to facilitate the entry of officials into a dialogue in which our presence might not be terribly important. We hoped to jumpstart a process and then bow out gracefully. Now, so that is the framework. Regarding the substance -- there were two related tracks to the substance. One is the question of how you excite some sort of interest in this issue. And in that sense, the focus was on confidence building measures that, for the most part, Syria might take in order to jumpstart the process in Israel, in order to force them to pay attention. There was a whole range of issues that we discussed, ranging from visits of Israeli Jewish
figures to the gravesites of Jewish sages whose tombs are in Damascus; to information exchanges on prisoners of war, or Syrians and Israelis who are now in the respective jails of each country; to some sort of movement on resolving the issue of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy, who was discovered and jailed and tried and hanged in Damascus in the mid-1960s, and whose wife and children are still alive. All of these, we discussed at great length and tried to ascertain what sort of sequence of steps might work. The other and the more productive aspect of our efforts were focused on what has come to be known as a non-paper that would contain principles and a framework that we decided upon for overcoming the obstacles that had precluded agreement in the past. And it is in that non-paper, I think, that I personally am most proud and that I think offers the best indicator of the value of the work that we were able to do. So if you will permit me, I'll just focus for a few minutes on the non-paper itself. The non-paper was published in Haâ€™aretz in English. I have subsequently heard many comments from journalists in the Arab world who, for some reason, were reading from translated copies of this non-paper which bear no relationship to what we wrote; and so I made a point of referring them back to the English language text. I'm sure it is available on our website â€“ www.fmep.org. [Note: See Analysis and Commentary: Syria] As it was agreed by the parties - and again I'll refer here principally to Alon Liel and Abe Soliman - there were two issues that obstructed agreement in the past. One was the issue of water, and the other was the issue of control, access, and sovereignty around the Sea of Galilee. The other issues are normalization, security, and so forth. I must admit we did not spend too much time on these because as some of the principals themselves have said, 90 percent of that work has been done.
The basic territorial and political framework of this entire exercise was a restoration of Syrian sovereignty to the June 4 [1967 border]. That was the point of departure that was agreed upon by the two principal parties here. It was recognized that in a formal sense, there is no June 4 border. This is a line that has to be determined in bilateral consultations. That was not a task that we set for ourselves. We did have maps, but we made no effort whatsoever to draw the June 4 line. . Within the context of a restoration of Syrian sovereignty to the June 4 border, it became apparent to us that there was a great deal of flexibility in how one addresses questions of water and access. What we hit upon was an understanding in which within the context of a restoration of Syrian sovereignty, Israelâ€™s control and use of the water resources of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee would be recognized and protected. Concurrently, the Syrians would make no effort to redirect or to interfere with the natural course of water on the plateau, in the Jordan or the tributaries of the Jordan, and Syrian access to these resources for residential and fishing purposes would be guaranteed and recognized. This is to accommodate whatever Syrian fishing fleet would be interested and reestablishing a presence in the Sea of Galilee. The other and related element of our efforts was focusing on the question of access by Israel around the Sea of Galilee. This, for those you who followed the discussions between Israel and Syria during the Clinton administration -- the talks foundered in large part on questions of access around the Sea of Galilee. So, at the suggestion of Mr. Soliman who had been thinking quite creatively about this for many years, the suggestion was made that within the context of Syrian sovereignty that some sort of park whose geographic dimension were not agreed upon - would be established in
part of the Golan Heights, which would solve the question of the apparent contradiction between sovereignty, control, and access. This would be a park in which permanent settlement by Syrians or anybody else would not be permitted, like any national park in any part of the world. The park would be within the context of the de-militarization schemes that were going to be applied to the Golan Heights as a whole. This would be a means for answering the Syrian demand for sovereignty and the Israeli concern about access. There had been other similar ideas mooted during the years about how one solves this apparent contradiction; this was our contribution. We spent a lot of time thinking about this and it seems to us that this would, at the very least, serve as the basis for an interesting conversation between officials from Syria and Israel. The other issue that we spent a fair a bit of time on was the whole question of the Israeli civilian settlement infrastructure in the Golan Heights. There are about 33 settlements with about 18,000 Israelis residing in these areas. There is a flourishing economy; there are vineyards, and the biggest dairy in the Middle East is in the Golan Heights. There was a question, number one, about the infra-structure and, number two, about the timeframe for removing settlers. You may recall that these discussions took place in the thick of Ariel Sharonâ€™s intention to disengage from the Gaza Strip and the whole question of evacuating the Gaza Strip, and the settlements there was number one on the agenda. So, to the extent that that effort influenced us, it put on our table a timeframe, a sequencing for the withdrawal of settlers, in which there was a great deal of flexibility demonstrated on the part of both principals. Within territories in the Golan Heights restored to Syrian sovereignty, at some point sooner or later, all Israeli civilian settlers and Israeli nationals would be withdrawn
permanently; there was no doubt about that. There were certainly arguments about this, but, again, in the kind of collegial environment that we managed to establish, I think we resolved this issue in a way which is consistent with past practice and which met the satisfactory response of both the principals. Perhaps I should stop there and we can open the floor to questions.
Questions and Answers
Q: Ron Kampeas, Jewish Telegraphic Agency. You talked earlier about the confidence building measures. Did any of these come to fruition as a result of the delegation of American Jews who did visit the holy sites in Syria? Was that part of it? A: Aronson: I do not think we are as satisfied as anyone of us would like to be about the extent and the success of these efforts. One can only hope that in the future, there is a more visible demonstration of the degree to which each party is prepared to play that game successfully. Q: Ted Kattouf, AMIDEAST: I'm somebody having been involved with Syria who argued in the ‘90s that Assad - the late President Assad - was serious about making peace with Israel. I'm not sure if I still believe that the son, Bashar Al-Assad can afford final peace with Israel. I think, certainly, he is sincere about wanting to engage because the process itself is very useful right now in terms of serious isolation. But a peace agreement almost by definition would require Syria to reorient its policies vis-à-vis Hezbollah in Lebanon in the government there; Hamas -- perhaps not Iran directly because it is a little beyond anybody’s right to tell Syria how to conduct their relationship with Iran. Nevertheless, it certainly would badly affect
Syriaâ€™s relations with Iran. Therefore, I would like to either hear you or Mr. Soliman address the question as to why Bashar would be willing to trade a relationship right now he can count on with Iran when he cannot count on much for peace on the Golan with Israel. A: Aronson: You are starting at the end of the game. You are not starting at the beginning of the game. The game is a process here whose outcome and whose ramifications we can only guess at. I think, at the very least, it is my impression, and I think it is the impression of those with whom I sat at the very least there is a serious and sustained willingness, on the part of Syria, to address issues that are on the agenda between Syria and Israel. Now, some of these relate only to the question of territory on the Golan Heights. Some of them relate to the regional strategic environment. You mentioned Hezbollah; you mentioned Hamas; Iran. I assume the Syrians also have their interests and concerns. As for the suggestion that Syria may be interested in the idea of talks and in the fact of talks rather than in resolving [problems], there are many countries in the world that are engaged in discussions perhaps not because they intend to see them end successfully, but as a means of kicking the ball down the road. That in and of itself should not disqualify Syria as a real partner here. But all too often it is invoked by those who want to abort the process at the beginning before it even starts. The fact -- and I personally believe that engaging Syria in a serious negotiation will itself change the environment; it will necessarily have a positive impact on the regional polarization which we are now suffering from and which to some extent we in the US are responsible for. A: Ambassador Sam Lewis: I have been appalled by the attitude of the administration which has clearly encouraged the Israelis to avoid talks with Syria. There have been lots and lots of back channels -- second-track back channels in the Middle East over the last three decades. Some have succeeded in turning into formal negotiations; most have not.
One clear record from a historical record is never has one that was publicized prematurely before it became an official dialogue ever succeeded. I cannot understand why you felt that it was a good idea to bring this very creative and very ambitious and admirable effort that you all have been engaged in into the public arena when it was clear the United States was against it and was not going to support it, and the Israeli government was against it at that time. What did you hope to achieve except to make it much more difficult to renew it at some point in the future? A: Aronson: These are absolutely fair arguments to make. They were arguments and considerations that were part of the discussion we had in the period leading up to the decision on our part taken by everyone to make public our efforts. The non-paper was completed in 2005, so it has been in our possession for quite some time. Had we run to the press soon thereafter, it would not have mattered and we understood this. However, in the wake of Israelâ€™s misadventure in Lebanon in the summer, the issue of what to do about Syria was front and center on Israelâ€™s domestic public agenda. This created a public environment to which we thought our efforts could be of some value in trying to push the debate forward. And frankly, the response was far greater and far more intense than anyone of us had considered. I did not imagine that within two or three hours of the papers hitting the stands that the Prime Minister of Israel himself would feel called upon in his own fashion to deny the value of our efforts. The spotlight was far greater than we had thought it would be. The assessment in Israel, among those whose judgment about these things is far more expert than mine, is that it served a real purpose. There is a tremendous public response that is ongoing in Israel. And that I think is all to the good. And also, it has engaged not only the Israeli public, but Israeli policymakers
as well, who, of course, are engaging in this issue in a far more intensive way than they were in the past. And from what I know today, our efforts did absolutely no harm whatsoever. I mean, the publication of our efforts did not hurt as at all. I'm not as well versed in the response in Syria, but again, I fall back on the principal willingness on the part of the Assad regime as a strategic choice made many years ago to engage in productive negotiations with Israel centered on a return of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. They have been fairly consistent with that over the last 15 years or so. This episode in and of itself is not going to change that, I would hope. In terms of the value of our efforts themselves and whether or not we as a group have a future, again, to the extent that our work produced the non-paper, that is it. We do not aspire to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. We are not writing annexes or going back and poring over maps. However, I remain confident that there are dimensions to our efforts that are still active, will still be active, and, with God’s grace, will produce some fruit. Q: Jerome Segal: What I'm curious about is what were the range of reactions that you got from this, from people in the government? And if by people who are serious about promoting Israeli-Syrian peace, there was enthusiasm in believing that, well, this is really a breakthrough if your assessment is right, then how do you explain the lack of interest in moving forward in this? Geoffrey Aronson: Number one, I would suggest that the idea that there is a lack of interest in moving forward, if you base that only on what has been said publicly and you make that conclusion, you would be wrong. One should not depend on public responses alone to inform your judgment, especially when it is related to Track II. Track II by its very nature is a deniable exercise. If people were to not deny the exercise, they would be undermining the idea
and what I consider to be the value of Track II. So, one could not expect them to embrace this publicly. So again, I would not and Iâ€™m not prepared to suggest that either of the major parties here today -- Israel-Syria -- is right now -- is that this effort has ended and that one side is to blame and the other side is not to blame. That certainly is not the story, as I understand it. Q: Ethan Hagner: Could you talk about what response you got here in DC and from people in this government to this proposal? A: Aronson: Do you hear the silence? Q: Ted Feifer, U.S. Institute of Peace: I'm interested in how you saw your role. Did you see yourself as just simply providing good offices for people to meet? Or did you actually work with the participants, draw from them their ideas on how to find an outcome and feed it back to the participants? Or did you find your ideas for your proposals elsewhere and feed it in? A: Aronson: Well, I think there is probably a bit of everything in that. In a specifically operational sense, I helped set the dates. I made sure that everybody had a plane ticket. I made sure that the Swiss had managed to make sure that everybody would be in the same place at the same time. I created the agendas for the meetings based on consultations with the principals. I took notes. I wrote the protocols. I revised the protocols after consultation with the principals. I prepared the drafts of the non-paper and amended them as required. Generally, however, I was reluctant to supervise in the sense that I did not want it to be my process by any means. I wanted it to be their process. And so at times, perhaps, I did not assert some sort of adult supervision when it would have been indicated, if people were not too happy with someone else or if people walked out of the room. I could have been better at either keeping them in the room or suggesting that they take a break or putting a stop to certain
discussions. But the fact that for the most part people kept coming back suggested that they themselves understood and were cognizant of the value of the exercise that they were engaged in, and which resulted in a tangible product. So, I think in that sense we all succeeded. Q: Did the concept of a park come from the Syrians or the Israelis or just flowed from the discussion? A: Aronson: Well, it would not come from the Syrians or the Israelis. It came from Mr. Abe Soliman. It was his idea. But, again, an idea that had been rooted in, I believe, a close reading of previous efforts. Q: Jeff, people asked about the reaction in Washington, the reaction in Israel. I'm most interested in the reaction in the Syria. In Akiva [Eldarâ€™s] stories in Haâ€™aretz,, this was depicted as an exploratory exercise initiated by President Assad with the Turks, originally. Further, it was depicted as a process that was very closely followed by the Syrians in meetings following each and every round in Damascus. The question is, therefore, first of all, if those depictions are correct? And, secondly, what kind of a reaction did you get from the Syrian government as to the content, the actual substance? A: Aronson: Oh, again, who am I to argue with the star reporter Akiva Eldar? So, I'll leave what he said to be a reasonable approximation of what happened. But, Abe, did you want to make a comment about that? A: Abraham Soliman: Yes. I was not, repeat, I was not speaking for Syria, representing Syria in any way, shape or form. I want this to be understood. Number two, I believe the leak on January 16 was wrong. Our work was supposed to be completed trying to get the agreement from the Syrians and the agreement from Israel about the papers that we put together. And if we get the agreement of these two governments, then the Israeli government
will bring a copy of it and come to the US administration here and ask them to adopt our result as a roadmap for peace between Syria and Israel, and we will disappear. Nobody will hear about Abe Soliman, Liel or Jeff or anyone else. Unfortunately, January 16 messed it all. I was on my way to Israel to address the Herzliya conference. I got to Switzerland; I heard about it. I talked to some in Israel, including Jeff, and I said I'm going back home. [Note: Mr. Soliman and Mr. Liel briefed the Israeli Knesset Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs, at the Committee’s invitation on April 12, 2007.] Q: Paul Scham, Middle East Institute: Jeff, I wonder if you can give us your assessment of the Israeli political and public reaction after it became public. Geoffrey Aronson: The so-called price that Israel would have to pay for an understanding with Syria is understood, and it was only reiterated, I think, in today’s Ha’aretz as well, where Olmert himself said, “We understand what the price is here.” Sharon himself had said this as well. Sharon was not prepared to pay the price. Ehud Barak was almost prepared to pay the price. Netanyahu, apparently, was not sure if he was prepared to pay the price. The real question is to what extent does a rapprochement with Syria fit in to Israel’s understanding of its interests; and secondly, to what extent does a rapprochement with Syria fit into those interests in the US? Now, the fact that we even have to ask such a question today is extraordinary. How can one suggest that a peace treaty with Syria –- between Israel and Syria -- is not an objective that is worthy of pursuing? What are we talking about here is resolving an issue that is at the core of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world, and whose ramifications will have no choice
but to spill over into other issues that are of strategic importance, not only to Israel, but to the US as well.” So, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to oppose this, absolutely none, whatsoever, to oppose this. And there are voices in Israel that feel this way. It is also heartening to know that there are those voices inside who say to themselves, “How can we not stretch out our hand when the other guy is trying in his own fashion to do so as well?” But the story is not over yet. The answer has not been given yet. Q: Farid Ghadry, Reform Party of Syria. I have a very good question to ask about how do you feel when this issue was exposed in Israel. The people of Israel debated that issue. I totally agree with you that peace with Syria and Israel is a necessary tool. But how do you feel about the Syrian people not having the choice to debate that issue, with no human rights and no conclusive evidence or no means by which they can decide whether this is in their best interest and the best interest of Syria and the best interest of the Syrian people who actually own the Golan Heights at the end of the day? A: Aronson: It is a very important point you raised. One does not feel good when anyone’s rights to participate in the basic decisions of how they are ruled and how their interests are formed are denied. Having said that, we are not in a position to choose the people with whom we sit across the table from. That was certainly not my job here. That was not our intention. Our intention was focused specifically on trying to discover ways in which issues that had come between Israel and Syria and, if you will, the people of Israel and the people of Syria for 50 years could be resolved and meet the reasonable requirements of each of the parties.
So we did not aspire to do anything beyond that. Now, to what extent resolving the issues at stake between Israel and Syria will affect the domestic political situation in Syria or in Israel is, again, not something that we address, but it is certainly something that might be worthy or further investigation. Q: Melissa Mahle, C&O Resources: If you come to the point of concluding in secret a document that reaches the needs of the ruling elite in Syria and meets the needs of the decision makers of democracy in Israel, and you proceed on that and you come up with an agreement that is signed and sealed, and yet you have a regime in Syria that is viewed as illegitimate by a significant portion of its population, how durable is that going to be? And how much confidence can the international community -- and probably even more importantly, how much confidence can Israel have in something like that? Geoffrey Aronson: Well, unfortunately, diplomacy cannot wait until everybody adopts the Declaration of Independence as their calling card. One has to see this not as a static process, but as a dynamic one in which events today influence the events tomorrow and the day after. Now, of course, one can argue that any kind of agreement with any kind of dictatorial regime will do nothing but insulate that regime and fortify it. That may be true, but you can also make the other point -- that to the extent that you pacify the conflict in relations between Syria and Israel, you go far towards undermining the state of war upon which a regime may be based. And that need not be only be Syria; it could be anywhere else in the world. So, I am not prepared to agree to the premise of your point that, as a matter of fact, one should not make a deal with the bad guys because they are bad guys. Otherwise, we would be sitting here in Washington saying, â€œEverybody knows what they are supposed to do and I'm
just going to sit in my room until they do it.â€? And of course, that is where we are. It is a silly argument. Q: Richard Sullivan, freelance writer: I wanted to talk a little bit about the United Statesâ€™ reaction; not limited to the silence that you described, Jeff, but to a comment Ambassador Wilcox made about the United States inhibiting Israeli-Syrian talks. A: Aronson: In Washington it is absolutely no secret that the Syrians are wearing the black hats for all sorts of reasons, whether they do -- have to do with Iraq or Iran or Lebanon, they are wearing the black hats. That is the prism through which this administration views anything to do with Syria. And the blackness is so complete and the room is so dark that it is like trying to escape from a black hole. It is very hard, no matter how bright the light is, to escape the forces of gravity that have been created around this issue. Now, luckily for us, these are not forces of nature; these are self-imposed blinders. And one can hope, certainly, that either by choice or compulsion that policymakers everywhere, and not only here, will see it in their interest, or be forced to see it in their interest, that re-thinking without repudiating their understanding of where Syria fits in to the equation is something that is also in their own best interest to do. And I hope and pray for that day here. The non-paper did not make any pretense to be comprehensive or detailed. That there would be a mutual effort on the part of the parties to address questions related to terror and instability, and so forth was part of the understanding. Now, how specifically the parties want to interpret that certainly is up to them. In our discussions, there was a considerable willingness to be forthcoming on the part of both parties about what exactly that meant and the degree to which common ground could be found between the parties as a way of addressing the
principal concerns of each of them, whether it is regarding Israelâ€™s occupation or the Palestinian authority or the political constellation in Beirut, and so forth. A sense of common conceptual ground was found, and so that the idea that a bilateral agreement between Israel and Syria would have an influence merely restricted to those two countries is, at least in our view, not a correct perception of what is on the agenda here. Q: Jeff, you said the American reaction was one of silence. Can you tell us -- did you ever brief the administration as you embarked on this initiative? Did you brief them in the course of it? And were you actively discouraged from continuing? A: Aronson: I was merely the facilitator here. I did not take any -- I was not part of any effort. And as far as I know, no effort was made to keep US officials apprised. (Note: Mr. Aronson has since briefed a group of U.S. officials at their request.) This administration is not actively invested in a way that no predecessor administration has been in the political or even the territorial status quo in the Middle East. Unlike all of their predecessors, they feel that the post-war system has worked to undermine US interests, not to preserve US interests. Therefore, from the get-go, there is a perception that the status quo should be undermined, even when the status quo is your ostensible friends, let alone people who you have defined as your enemies. So, Syria is certainly not understood to be a friend. And it is an enemy because that is the way their world works, and you do not help your enemies; you undermine them. And your enemies only become your friends when they do exactly what you want them to do. And then you undermine them as well because you do not like them. Q: Jim Vitarello, Washington Inter-Faith Alliance for ME Peace: Jeff, just from your own personal point of view, what difference, if any, do you think it would make if -- well,
whether there was an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before a Syrian-Israeli agreement or vice versa? And what impact would the success of one have on the other, you think? A: Aronson: I'm not able to pick and choose the sequence. And I do not spend a lot of time thinking about were I in such a position, which would I choose? This is like the course of a stream here. Whatever way you see the water flowing.
Published on Dec 22, 2010
Geoffrey Aronson, Director for Research and Editor of Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East...