This weblog entry builds on my 1999 article, " The Road to Damascus: What Netanyahu almost gave away," adding new pieces of information as they become available on the topic of the Lauder-Nader round of negotiations between Israel and Syria in August-September 1998.
For starters, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth toda published a photograph of the complete draft "Treaty of Peace between Israel and Syria" carried by Ronald Lauder from Netanyahu to Assad and dated Aug. 29, 1998; IMRA has posted it. Article 2 states that in accordance with Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, "Israel will withdraw from the Syrian lands taken in 1967"; and that "a commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923" would be drawn up. The document also contains a handwritten note: "given to President Clinton 17.11.98." (April 13, 2001)
June 22, 2004 update: This seemingly forgotten topic has suddenly revived, thanks to Bill Clinton's autobiography, My Life, published today. 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.
June 24, 2004 update: Ha'aretz today quotes Lauder saying in April 2001 the draft expressed only his personal view, and that the agreement was rejected by Netanyahu, who wanted a border that would give Israel more than either the 1923 border or the June 4, 1967, lines.
Uri Saguy, Barak's chief Syria negotiator, has confirmed 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.
June 27, 2004 update: Netanyahu has 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."
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.
July 4, 2004 update: Ronald Lauder issued a statement, quoted in full in today's Yedi'ot Aharonot, in which he states that "Prime Minister Netanyahu never approved a retreat to 1967 borders," adding that "None of the documents that were drafted during these talks was official, and no document was approved by Prime Minister Netanyahu."
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."
Aug. 6, 2004 update: I provide a fuller analysis today of The Missing Peace at "[Dennis Ross on] Strange Twists in Syrian-Israeli Diplomacy."
Apr. 24, 2008 update: With the Olmert government reportedly willing to turn the Golan Heights over to Syria, what Binyamin Netanyahu, now the leader of the opposition, did in 1998 has reappeared as a political issue. Today, the Jerusalem Post reports, Major General Ze'ev Livne (res), Netanyahu's military attaché, told Israel's Army Radio that Netanyahu "was willing to make prodigious concessions in order to seal a peace deal, but it was unsuccessful and was unrealized." Livne added his hope that such a deal "is realized in the future."
Apr. 27, 2008 update: Netanyahu and Olmert traded attacks on the incipient diplomacy. In response to reports that Olmert had indicated to Bashar al-Assad that he would withdraw Israeli control from the Golan Heights, Netanyahu said that "The Golan must stay in our hands, because if we withdraw, we will receive Iran on our northern border. … I am very surprised that the prime minister is willing to give up the entire Golan Heights, even before negotiations have begun, in such an amateurish, reckless way. ... This is not how you build peace."
Olmert's office replied: "In order to refresh Mr. Netanyahu's memory, he was the one [who] sent then-Syrian President Hafez Assad an American businessman [Ronald Lauder] to relinquish the Golan Heights in Israel's name, before any negotiations had begun."
To which Netanyahu's his office replied that "despite Olmert's attempts to mislead the public, Netanyahu insisted on keeping the Golan Heights, and that was why the talks were stopped."
May 22, 2008 update: As debate over the Golan Heights heats up in Israel, news accounts quoted Likud Party faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar saying that if Netanyahu wins the next election, he would not be obligated by any agreements reached by Ehud Olmert with Damascus. To this, Netanyahu replied otherwise, that he would abide by such an agreement. At the same time, his office released a statement predicting that if Olmert does sign a deal with Damascus, the Knesset and the public will overwhelmingly reject it.
Netanyahu expressed his own opposition to such a deal, saying that Syria is "an inseparable part of the axis of evil." Conceding the Golan, he maintained, would allow Iran to endanger all of Israel. "If you believe the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem that Olmert has already promised to give up the Golan up to the banks of the Galilee before the negotiations have begun, it is unprecedented diplomatic and security abandonment." In an interview, Netanyahu added that he does not rule out negotiating with Damascus, but he ruled out retreating from the Golan Heights.
Also interesting, in light of Netanyahu's 1998 negotiations with Damascus, was his comment about Olmert's political straits:
There is wide agreement from Right to Left that the diplomatic process cannot be used to shelter politicians in distress. Most of the public knows the prime minister expedited the talks with Syria and set the exact time for revealing them to distract the public from the investigations against him. Olmert, who is up to his neck in investigations, has no moral or public mandate to conduct fateful negotiations on Israel's future.
Feb. 22, 2009 update: In an article on Netanyahu's current policies toward Syria, Uzi Mahnaimi quotes him saying in a 2007 interview: "Indeed I did have negotiations with the Syrians. I told Assad I'd need Mount Hermon because I need radar to look towards Iran, and Assad gave up the mountain. I was surprised and happy."