'After pullout, we'll be willing to drink coffee with you'

Dialogue of the deaf: Memos reveal vast gaps that sank ’90s Israel-Syria peace talks

Newly declassified reports by Israeli diplomat on negotiations show Damascus demanded commitment to full Israeli withdrawal from Golan, refused to promise diplomatic ties in return

A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights, Friday, March 8, 2013 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights, Friday, March 8, 2013 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Newly declassified documents shed some light on the failed US-mediated effort for Israeli-Syrian peace in the early 1990s, with hundreds of memos from the talks now made available by the State Archives.

The memos, reported on by the Ynet news site on Friday, lay bare the vast gulf between the sides as talks with Syrian leader Hafez Assad dragged on under the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992-1993, eventually falling through.

The hundreds of memos by Rabin’s envoy to the Washington negotiations, then-ambassador to the US Itamar Rabinovich, describe the sides’ inability to agree on the purpose of the process or on the shape of a potential peace deal, with Israel seeking a clear delineation of relations while Syria demanded an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights before making any promises.

Israel conquered the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War, when it also took the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Damascus has since insisted the territory be returned to it under any deal, while in many Israelis’ eyes, it has become an inseparable part of the country.

Today, peace with war-ravaged Syria and an Israeli withdrawal from the strategic plateau as it faces a growing threat from Iran along its northern borders, seem unimaginable. But in the 1990s, the possibility was far more real, with successive Israeli governments weighing a potential Golan withdrawal for the chance at expanding the circle of peace, which by then included Egypt and would soon also include Jordan. The talks were brokered by the US administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The Golan was thus at the center of Rabinovich’s telling of events, as he described his back-and-forth with Syrian negotiator Mowaffak Allaf, a longtime diplomat at the United Nations.

US President George H. W. Bush, right, meets with Syria’s peace negotiator Mowaffak Allaf in the Oval Office of the White House to discuss the Middle East peace talks, December 17, 1992, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

Rabinovich reported to Rabin and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres that the Syrian delegation was generally standoffish, refusing to shake hands with the Israelis and avoiding any socialization during breaks, though the coolness dissipated slightly over time.

There were even some glimmers of optimism, with Allaf saying at one point: “After the Israeli withdrawal [from the Golan], we will be willing to drink coffee with you.”

But Rabinovich described negotiations that never significantly took off from the sides’ original stances, which were too far apart even on the basic premise and goal of the talks.

“We did not come to an agreement after it became apparent to us that the Syrians wish to establish two [distinct] timetables: one for a simultaneous withdrawal, an end to the state of war and recognition; and the other for issues we are interested in regarding the essence of the peace. Syria clearly wants any normalization, if at all, to occur on a later timetable, independent of the first,” he wrote.

“The Syrian asymmetrical demand is clear: an immediate withdrawal on the one hand, with normalization, if at all, at a far later date.”

Itamar Rabinovich (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An undated photo of Itamar Rabinovich. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Rabinovich told Allaf that Israel wanted “full peace” and added: “We said we’d have to notify our leadership that Syria wants to put off normalization to an unknown future. To this Allaf responded that he could not confirm our understanding, but nor would he deny it.”

Allaf repeatedly voice the Syrian position that Israel must immediately commit to a full withdrawal from the entire territory and start the process on the ground, rejecting any Israeli proposals for a gradual withdrawal that would come only once security agreements had been reached. In contrast, Allaf insisted that the normalization process be gradual and include no commitment to eventually establishing formal diplomatic relations.

In one of his reports, Rabinovich complained that “we never said we wouldn’t completely withdraw from Syrian territory, while we explicitly heard that they are unwilling to give us full peace — meaning political peace — even if we withdraw from all Syrian territory.”

At one point, Allaf said: “Facts on the ground indicate Israel does not truly want to withdraw from all Syrian territory it occupies, and so long as Syria’s demand is not met, we will not be able to establish the basis for close relations between Syria and Israel. Israel wants to immediately obtain Syrian obligations on peace that cannot be given, as this is a gradual process that cannot be imposed on Syria after long years of hatred. Normalization is a gradual philosophy, not an immediate one. Israel is not doing a favor to Syria.”

US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, left, meets with Syrian President Hafez Assad, August 6, 1993, in Damascus for the second time in 48 hours amid reports of progress in peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. (AP Photo/George Asshi)

According to the Israeli diplomat, “Allaf rebuffed our proposal to present a list of demands on the matter of peace, asserting these had become a precondition that could not be accepted. Allaf repeatedly said Israel could miss its chance for peace with Syria… He does not believe an alternative peace process will present itself in the next 20 years.”

On one occasion, the sides began squabbling over who instigated the Six Day War. “We said it was a defensive war after Allaf said we were the aggressors. After a few minutes, both sides decided not to linger on the past and on a fruitless debate.”

On December 15, 1992, Rabinovich reported: “Today, talks with the Syrian delegation regarding their concept of peace were particularly sharp, while still held in a polite atmosphere… At their end, the significant differences between their views and our demands became far clearer. Allaf repeatedly asked whether we view the 1967 lines as those that should be sought. Allaf said they must know our position on the matter. We said this question was premature and would be appropriate once we fully understood the Syrian concept for peace… Allaf admitted that their view of peace is limited and does not include diplomatic relations, for example.”

Illustrative: View of the Israel-Syrian border near Tel Saki, Southern Golan Heights, on September 15, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Allaf said the Syrian government had hoped the left-wing Rabin government would be easier to deal with than its predecessor, the right-wing government of Yitzhak Shamir, but that the policy hadn’t changed significantly. The Syrian diplomat said at one point that “there will not be peace so long as Israel holds an inch of Syrian land.”

Rabinovich told Ynet last week that at one point during the talks, he offered the Syrians coffee he’d brought from Israel. “Two or three weeks later, Allaf told me: ‘Today, during the coffee break, you and I will go first to the coffee machine.’ By the machine, after a few pleasantries, he told me: ‘I hope your government understands that Hafez Assad cannot accept less than Egyptian President Anwar Sadat [with Israel returning the Sinai to Egypt as part of the countries’ peace agreement]. I told him that if he didn’t want to get less than Sadat, he should give what Sadat gave.”

Though the content of Rabinovich’s memos is newly revealed, the veteran diplomat wrote a book in 1999 on his experience of the talks and the peace that never was, “The Brink of Peace.”

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