Aronson: Secret Syrian-Israeli Talks Produced Unofficial Agreement

Geoffrey Aronson, who participated in two years of intermittent talks between unofficial Israeli and Syrian representatives, said contacts continue even though they have not sat down together since last summer. Aronson says talks led to a “non-paper” and unofficial accord by which Israel would return the Golan Heights to Syria and in return get access to water in the region.

February 05, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Geoffrey Aronson, who participated in two years of intermittent talks between unofficial Israeli and Syrian representatives, said the contacts are continuing even though they have not sat down together since last summer. Aronson, director of research and publications of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace who has devoted his career to a negotiated solution, says the unofficial talks led to an accord by which Israel would return the Golan Heights to Syria and in return get access to water in the region. Even though there are no current plans for Syrian-Israeli government talks, Aronson says “one can reasonably assume that there would be some value in such a dialogue.”

Recent reports in Haaretz detail two years of secret non-governmental talks that you were a part of between Syria and Israel, which worked out an unofficial draft document that would return the Golan Heights to Syria in return for Syrian agreements as well. How did you, as an American, get involved in these talks?

Well, first it’s important to point out that these were not official talks. This was a track-two [non-governmental] exercise. None of the parties at the time of the discussions was a [government] official. My involvement was a consequence of the fact that I knew all of the principals, who didn’t know each other. So I knew Alon Liel, I knew Uzi Arad.

Now, you’ve got to explain.  Liel is a former director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry? Who else was there?

Yes, and formerly a career foreign service officer who had also been ambassador to Turkey and South Africa. Uzi Arad was at one time head of the Mossad’s [Israeli intelligence] research department, and more recently was the national security adviser for Benjamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister. Ibrahim (Ayeb) Suleiman is a Syrian-American, an American citizen since the late-1950s, who had and maintains close personal and social and national connections with members of the top leadership in Syria. He was active in the early 1990s, in efforts to win freedom of emigration for Syrian Jews.

I had been discussing with Ayeb Suleiman off and on for many months his desire to engage Israelis in an effort to revisit the stalemate that had occurred at the Geneva talks in 2000 [between Israel and Syria with then-President Bill Clinton’s direct involvement]. I had also maintained my longstanding connections with Alon Liel, who was also very interested in the Syrian track. He was the person who brought Patrick Seale [British author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East], for example, to see Ehud Barak soon after Barak was named prime minister, and was helpful at that point in focusing Barak’s attention on the prospects of a deal with Damascus.

At the outset we got some important support from an American benefactor, Bobby Muller, who was a former Vietnam veteran, one of the founders of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) foundation, who was also instrumental in the international campaign against landmines for which his organization won the Nobel Peace Prize. He supported us in our first efforts, and then we were able to gain what are called the good offices of Switzerland. These talks went on, again, intermittently, from 2004 through this past summer.

You were confident, I take it, throughout the talks that you at least had some understanding from the Syrian side for what you were doing.

Well, whenever such discussions are organized, there is always the question of the degree to which the party sitting across the table speaks for someone, perhaps other than him or herself, and to what extent these people are reporting back, and so forth. It’s important to note that in all cases everyone satisfied themselves that this was an exercise worth pursuing and that the people who were sitting around the table were responsible, serious players for whom it was worth spending time and money on. Beyond that, it’s not fair to say the extent to which there was an official connection to these talks.

For people’s background, let’s recall: In 2000 Prime Minister Barak, with President Clinton as an intermediary, was trying to work out a deal with [former Syrian leader] Hafez al-Assad. The talks collapsed because of what? Because the Israelis wouldn’t give back the whole Golan Heights?

Well, again it depends who you talk to. But the talks collapsed in Geneva specifically because the Syrians were apprised by both the United States and the Saudis that [Syria’s] understanding of the deal had been agreed to by Israel. When they got to Geneva to sign this deal, it turned out that that was not the case. And that the Clinton administration had not been as forthcoming as it should have been about the absence of an Israeli agreement to the framework that the Syrians thought that they had achieved.

I see. So those were really the last substantive discussions.

Yes, after that things shut down more or less.

And of course since then we’ve had a new administration in Washington which has not been very interested in the Syrians.

Well, it has been, but in some other context altogether.

What do you mean?

Well, in the context of Iraq and the view that Syrians were playing a destabilizing role there.

And as I understand from what I’ve read in Haaretz at least, that the talks really couldn’t go much further because the Israelis would not send an official to the talks in the end because the Americans didn’t want them to?

Well, that’s entirely speculative. I wouldn’t characterize things as having broken down by any means. This is a process that we’re engaged in and as far as I’m concerned the process itself isn’t over.

And to suggest at this point that one party or the other was responsible for a breakdown, which I don’t admit has occurred, or see as having occurred, I think suggests a misunderstanding as to what happened.

All right, well why don’t we take the positive side here. What was actually worked out?

Well, at a very minimum, again one has to recall that this is a track-two discussion which did not aspire to write a peace agreement, it did not aspire to answer all of the questions that would necessarily be included in such an agreement. What it did aspire to do was to try to approach creatively an effort to overcome the obstacles that had prevented agreement in the past, and to suggest outlines for thinking anew about these problems in the hope that it would demonstrate that well-intentioned people can resolve issues that had in the past prevented agreement.

There was an actual document, wasn’t there? What was the main point to that?

Well, again, we weren’t reinventing the wheel here. The main points were what [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin used to call the four pillars upon which any agreement would be based. There was a closer attention to trying to solve the obstacles that had prevented agreement in the past, namely the question of water, which didn’t take as much time as the second issue, which is resolving the relationship between the Syrian demand for sovereignty over areas that Israel captured in the June 1967 war, and trying to marry that concept of sovereignty to the issue of effective control over some of the territory and resources in areas that were to be returned to Syrian sovereignty. We tried to work out the questions of sovereignty and control, specifically as they related to water and to access around the Sea of Galilee.

The Syrians have always insisted on going back to the pre-1967 war boundaries. Was that included?

Yes, this was again at the center of Syrian demands, and it was acknowledged that this would be one of the fundamental principles upon which discussions would be based.

And the Israelis of course were concerned, what, about the Sea of Galilee?

Well, the agreement at Geneva, the one that Clinton was supposed to midwife, foundered, among other things, but most importantly on the question of Israeli access around the Sea of Galilee. And we tried to fix that. We tried to suggest a way in which that could be fixed, where Israelis could have unimpeded access, by and large unimpeded, through a park for which they would pay a small entry fee and therefore have access, but under the framework of Syrian sovereignty.

I noticed that Mr. Liel had a press conference in Israel recently where he said that he always dutifully informed people in the foreign ministry what was going on. And I take it Suleiman did the same with the Syrians. Did the American government know anything?

Not to my knowledge.

Because you did not report to the State Department?

That wasn’t my job.

No, I understand that. So you say the process is still going on even though it’s now come out in the open what happened, but is there another round of discussions scheduled?

Well again, we’re in the twenty-first century here, so one need not physically move to the same place in order to maintain effective communication links.

I see. So it is still alive, is what you’re saying?


There was talk during the Lebanese war last summer that the Syrians were interested in some kind of peace agreement with Israel. The Israelis said they weren’t interested in talking. What is the status on the government level as you understand it?

Based on their public pronouncements, it seems evident that the Syrians are interested in establishing some sort of diplomatic dialogue, and Israel for a variety of reasons is not. I think that’s an accurate reflection of the public positions of each of the parties.

On the situation in Israel, the popularity polls of the current government are so low now, I wonder if it’s at all feasible for any government in Israel to even contemplate negotiations with Syria now.

Well, my quick answer is yes.

You think Israel would gain in the long run over this?

Well, I think to the extent that negotiations would lead to greater understanding between the two antagonists you would be in a better position than you were when you started. So I think based on our experience, and again not our experience alone, one can reasonably assume that there would be some value in such a dialogue.