Maariv: Gen. Saguy reveals details of Lauder brokered Bibi-Assad negotiations in the ’90s
Ofer Shelah, Maariv, April 27 2010 [page 8; Hebrew original here and at bottom of post]
The most fascinating interview you did not read appeared this month in Halohem, the newsletter of the IDF disabled veterans organization. Perhaps it was the esoteric platform, perhaps it was the circumstances of the interview, and perhaps because the time had simply come—Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy tells in the interview, in rare detail, about the negotiations he held with the Syrians in 1999 and 2000: “A strategic diplomatic failure of the first order,” says Saguy, who was the director of Military Intelligence and head of the negotiating team for the talks with Syria in Ehud Barak’s days as prime minister, referring to the missed opportunity to reach an arrangement with Hafez Assad; such an arrangement could have prevented all the wars in the past decade and fundamentally changed Israel’s situation in the region.According to Saguy, it was not the question of Syrians dipping their feet in the water of the Kinneret that prevented an arrangement, but rather the weakness of the leaders. After lengthy negotiations throughout the world, the secret part of which included envoys of president Hafez Assad and military officers, and the open part of which was led by foreign minister Farouk Ashara, the sides managed to bridge their differences in most of the disputed issues. “I feel uncomfortable about quoting Bashar Assad,” Saguy says, “but he’s right when he says that 80 percent of the problems were resolved.” It is also clear to him that despite the Israeli declarations about “returning to negotiations without preconditions,” any future talks with Syria will have to be renewed from the same point.
Saguy reveals in detail the facts that Israel’s leaders over the past two decades have been trying to distort or conceal: He says explicitly that five prime ministers, from Rabin to Olmert, including Netanyahu, accepted the principle that an agreement would include a full withdrawal from the Golan to the June 4, 1967 borders. Sources close to the talks held at the time corroborate his statements, and add that agreed-upon ways were also found to bridge the disagreement over the question of where the border line passed on June 4, which was demarcated in the past by 41 boundary markers. In stating this, incidentally, Saguy is contradicting Netanyahu’s statements made after he lost the elections in May 1999, according to which his envoy Ron Lauder did not consent to a withdrawal to the June 4 borders. As the person who inherited the negotiations with the Syrians from Netanyahu’s aides, as Ehud Barak’s envoy, Saguy should know.
Saguy goes on to say that solutions were found to most of the questions pertaining to borders, security and water: On the latter matter, it has already been said that the drop of the Kinneret level in recent years has created a completely different situation than the one discussed a decade ago. The line referred to by the Syrians was the water line at the Kinneret’s maximum height—208.9 meters below sea level. The drop in the water level in recent years has shifted the disputed points of the shore hundreds of meters to the west, to a place that everyone agrees is in Israeli territory.
But more than the historical revelation, one sentence that Saguy says in the interview is important. “Israel berates itself after military failures in wars, (but) does not examine itself after strategic diplomatic failures—and in 2000 it was a strategic diplomatic failure of the first order for the State of Israel,” he says—and does not explicitly address Israel’s strategic diplomatic failure of the first order that occurred nine years later, in the talks that Ehud Olmert conducted with Syria through Turkish mediation. In the last conversation, according to informed sources, Bashar Assad asked Olmert concrete questions intended to bolster and restore the 2000 understandings, mainly on border issues. The Israeli prime minister’s response was supposed to confirm that he indeed stood behind his predecessors’ assurances. “Olmert exhausted the foreplay with the Syrians,” an informed source says. But then, the Israeli prime minister cut off the meetings, returned to Israel, and a few days later launched Operation Cast Lead.
Here we have to return to Saguy’s statements about the media and public indifference to diplomatic failures. Perhaps, if an outcry had arisen after the arrangement with Syria was missed in 2000, Olmert—along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the prime minister in the previous round of the talks with Syria—would have behaved differently. Perhaps he would not have been so quick to interrupt the emerging negotiations with Assad and launch a pinpointed operation, no matter how important, in the south. Perhaps then we would not be dealing once again with pointless inquiries about military operations without a decisive outcome, but rather with the question of why we are careful to miss the chance for an arrangement—and why we don’t care when this happens.
This is a recurring motif in our history: War determines the fate of public figures, but no one weeps for an arrangement that was missed. The Second Lebanon War, which destroyed Olmert’s legitimacy as a leader long before Rishon Tours and Holyland, was in the end an event that was not very important in Israel’s political and security history: A local clash, another crisis point in the graph of the confrontation between us and Hizbullah and Iran. But it was a war, and we take war seriously. We pay no mind, however, to wars that were not prevented.
This does not stem from concern for human life. Wars that were not prevented have cost Israel many more lives than failed wars. Part of the 2,500 fatalities of the Yom Kippur War stemmed from the intelligence fiasco and tactical failures, with which people have dealt and continue to deal to this day; all of the fatalities, however, died because of the arrangement with Egypt that was missed two years earlier. But no Motti Ashkenazi stood before the Prime Minister’s Office in 1971, and certainly did not sweep thousands in his wake to demonstrations that ultimately topped the government.
And this may be the case with Syria as well. For the past decade, high-ranking IDF officers have been warning that if a clash flares up with Syria, it will cost many fatalities—and then we will return to the very same point, the point that Saguy is officially revealing now that we already reached. But they do not do this publicly, only in closed chambers. And Barak, the man who got cold feet at the moment of truth, he too repeats this mantra, but does nothing to implement it. Just like the Palestinians, we regard an arrangement that has been missed as a force of nature, proof of the other side’s fickle and obstinate nature.
The state leaders and generals are to blame for a failed war, and they should be strung up in the city square. But the situation is to blame for the peace that was missed, and we are practical people, so we will not complain about the situation. But the next war with Syria, which has already been in the air more than once in the past decade, would definitely be averted if we cared. Ask Uri Saguy, the man who was there.