Daniel Pipes: What Was Binyamin Netanyahu Ready to Concede on the Golan Heights?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Daniel Pipes, at his blog (June 27, 2004):

A seemingly forgotten topic – the Lauder-Nader round of negotiations between Israel and Syria in August-September 1998 – has suddenly revived, thanks to Bill Clinton's autobiography, My Life, published June 22. In it, the former president roughly confirms my investigative article of July 1999, where I wrote that Binyamin Netanyahu"agreed that Israel would … return to the 1967 lines" separating the two countries. Here is Clinton, in the context of discussing the January 2000 Syria-Israel talks in Shepherdstown, Virginia:

Before he was killed, Yitzhak Rabin had given me a commitment to withdraw from the Golan to the June 4, 1967, borders as long as Israel's concerns were satisfied. The commitment was given on the condition that I keep it"in my pocket" until it could be formally presented to Syria in the context of a complete solution.

After Yitzhak's death, Shimon Peres reaffirmed the pocket commitment, and on this basis we had sponsored talks between the Syrians and the Israelis in 1996 at Wye River. Peres wanted me to sign a security treaty with Israel if it gave up the Golan, an idea that was suggested to me later by Netanyahu and would be advanced again by [Ehud] Barak. I had told them I was willing to do it.

This vague statement ("gave up the Golan" can mean many things) has prompted several reactions in Israel.

Netanyahu himself rejected Clinton's assertion."I never agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights in any situation or in any talks," he said in one radio interview."The negotiations were unsuccessful because I insisted that the final international border be located miles eastward of the current border." In another radio interview, he repeated this with a few more details:"In no situation did I agree to leave the Golan. That's what caused the break-up of the negotiations. … I agreed only to make concessions in the Golan - concessions that were defined as setting the border ‘kilometers' from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) - or, to be exact, ‘miles.' That's what we wrote there."

Ehud Barak, Netanyahu's successor, also rejected Clinton's account:"Netanyahu did not speak of returning to the international border line, rather a line that would leave a strip up to two miles wide."

Uri Saguy, Barak's chief Syria negotiator, in contrast, confirms that Netanyahu agreed to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines, i.e., to the water line of the Sea of Galilee. Saguy says that when he took on the task of coordinating negotiations with Syria, he read up on previous negotiations under four governments – those of Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak.

Anyone with eyes in his head, not to mention the Syrians, could have understood that all of the Israeli leaders were willing to leave all of the Golan Heights if satisfied in the realms of security, water, normalization, and also regarding a settlement in Lebanon."

By reading these documents, I learned that if I were a Syrian, I would understand from the proposal brought by [negotiator for Israel, Ronald] Lauder that if Israel can be satisfied regarding all of the abovementioned points, it would be willing to withdraw to the June 4, 1967, lines.

Comment: I outlined the two sides of this dispute in my July 1999 article and by all measures, they are still very much locked in place. (June 27, 2004)

July 9, 2004 update: Dennis Ross' memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (Farrar Straus Giroux) has just reached me, and he confirms on pp. 527-28 that Netanyahu had promised to return to the June 4 lines. Specifically, he tells about Bill Clinton in September 1999 receiving from Ronald Lauder"an eight-point paper which he claimed included the final points that had been agreed upon by both sides in 1998" and it indicated an agreement by Netanyahu for a"withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines." Ross notes with irony that this"meant that Barak's position on peace with Syria was less forthcoming than Netanyahu's."

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