Uri Saguy continues to to reveal details of Israel’s diplomatic history with Syria. In April, Maariv relayed an interview he had given to veterans’ publication, in which he described the role played by Ron Lauder in brokering Netanyahu-Assad negotiations in the ’90s. Last Friday in an extensive interview given to Yediot’s Uri Misgav, Saguy calls for the resumption of the diplomatic process and provides a highly critical insider’s account of Barak’s handling of the previous round, in 2000.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, the best informed person on the details of negotiations with Syria, is concerned about Israel’s situation and convinced that in light of the crisis with Turkey, Israel’s utmost priority should be peace with Assad.
In fact, he was sure it was about to happen (” I saw with my own eyes a draft agreement with the Syrians”) but then suddenly everything went wrong. Ehud Barak already provided his explanations here recently. Now Saguy reveals other details from the closed rooms
Uri Misgav, Yediot Friday Political Supplement, June 11 2010 [Hebrew original here and at bottom of post]
“We were very close to achieving a peace agreement with Syria in 2000. Closer than ever. It would have happened had we done what we promised to ourselves, the Americans and the Syrians.” Ten years after the collapse of the Israeli-Syrian channel, Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy reveals the details behind what he calls “a missed opportunity of deep historic significance.”
Saguy, appointed by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak to head the Israeli team for the talks, says “drafts of an agreement, written by Jonathan Schwartz from the US State Department, were already exchanged. I saw them with my own eyes. Not everything was agreed. Another meeting between the leaders was needed to conclude the deal.
But the Syrians came to Shepherdstown with a mandate to move forward. That is what the head of their delegation, Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara, said, and we knew this from the good intelligence we had at our disposal. It fell apart with a terrible crash. The Syrians and Bill Clinton came out of there with the feeling that the Israelis did not meet their commitments. I think Barak came there too soon.
He should have come for the next stage. I told him it was a mistake for him to go at the head of the delegation, that the time was not ripe yet. He replied: “We are going for two or three weeks, whatever it takes, to make peace.”
The extensive series of conversations with Saguy took place over the last two weeks, in the midst of what looked like an Israeli slide into the depths of an unprecedented political low and international isolation. The discussion of the agreement not reached with Syria was not academic and not disconnected from the context.
“There is no point in settling scores,” says Saguy, “but we are not exempt from asking ourselves questions. We are good at beating ourselves up in inquiries following military failures. We do not always check ourselves when it comes to strategic political failures of the highest order. And in 2000 we failed.”
What did it collapse over?
“I think it collapsed over the ethos. The Syrians said ‘June 4, return what you took by force.’ The Israelis said ‘Assad will not wade in Lake Kinneret,’ ‘we want to continue surrounding the Kinneret.’ There were technical solutions for everything.
Israel played very cleverly with the solution proposed by the Americans, of the difference between sovereignty and control, and I will not elaborate so as not to cause damage. I will only say there were solutions for everything. But what we could not get over is the ethos. At the critical stages the Israeli side was not determined enough. It is a shame. But we must not give up.”
What happened to Barak at the moment of truth?
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. We talked from time to time. He sticks to his position that there are things I don’t know because I was not the prime minister. I accept that I wasn’t and I accept that I don’t know. And I still believe it was a real failure. The argument is not over the Golan Heights.
The argument is over the state of Israel’s strategic national security. The Golan Heights is a very sensitive platform and we could do two things with it: either use it as a basis for an agreement or fight over it. Wars do not happen everyday but when they do happen it is very hard.
I still remember. If there is no choice, we will fight and our children will fight. But when there is a choice, should we not even explore it? That does not seem moral to me.”
The Rabin deposit
Saguy, 66, a father of three and grandfather of two, is probably one of the Israelis who has met the most Syrians face-to-face. “I first met them on the Golan Heights. There were a lot of them then, too,” he quips. He fought on the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War and was wounded twice. Later in his service he commanded the Golani brigade, was head of the general staff’s operations department in the First Lebanon War and served as commander of the land forces and the Southern Command.
Between 1991 and 1995 he served in his most important position, chief of intelligence. Only there, he admits, did the coin drop. “I spent many years as a military man on the Golan Heights, I saw it burn, not only thrive,” he explains. “I did not understand what only later as chief of intelligence I was able to understand.
It was a job that helped me develop a much broader worldview. I understood additional factors, I understood the limits of power.