Rabin and Syria, 1995
After Madrid, negotiations between Israel and Syria focusing on the exchange of land for peace continued sporadically. The central issue was the Golan Heights, a territory that Israel had seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. For Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, the issue was clear.
He had been Syria’s minister of defense when Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967 and had been president when Syria tried to retake it in 1973. other than the area around the city of Kuneitra, which he secured in 1974 during Henry Kissinger’s disengagement of forces agreement, Assad had been unable to get back the Golan Heights.
In 1994, especially after the death of Basil, his son, and presumed heir, the Syrian leader seemed to be in no rush to move, except on his terms, and acted as if there was nothing that would force his hand. He seemed interested only in a total and unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the Golan Heights to the line that had existed on July 4, 1967, in exchange for minor concessions that would follow the withdrawal.
For Israel, the issue was security and water. To ensure peace, security, and the guaranteed flow of water, Israel insisted that the Golan Heights be demilitarized, the intelligence from it be made available to Israel, the water that originates on it flow safely, and that no Syrian army encamped on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which ultimately controls about a third of the waters of the Jordan River.
The issues of determining the Syrian-Israeli border and water security were linked: Syria insisted on withdrawal by Israel from the Golan Heights to the pre–Six-Day War line; Israel insisted on the border that had been established during the British mandate, leaving the entire shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel’s control.
It was this latter line that had formed the basis of the armistice agreement between Israel and Syria in 1949. on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the line ran about 33 feet (approximately 10 meters) from the water’s edge. This line, however, was soon altered as both Israel and Syria took land in subsequent sporadic fighting between the two states.
Although U.S. secretary of state Kissinger had managed to negotiate a Syrian-Israeli military disengagement agreement that was signed in Geneva at the end of May 1974, no serious peace negotiations took place until the Rabin administration in 1995.
Israel’s position was based on her experience with the situation that prevailed between 1949 and 1967, when Syria took control of portions of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and other nearby areas, thereby controlling access to the Jordan River and threatening to divert water away from Israel. Ultimately, a final agreement would have to include a solution to the issue of the precious resource of water in the area, including the water flowing from the Hasbani and the Banias Rivers to the Jordan.
During the negotiations, Rabin was concerned that Israeli security considerations be given priority, recognizing both the strategic and political imperatives. Rabin needed to reassure Israelis that giving up the Golan Heights would not gravely affect Israeli security, and thereby, he would be able to attain the measure of domestic support essential to make the deal and, later, to win reelection.
Rabin was not prepared for unilateral Israeli actions and pledged that he would submit the Golan issue to an Israeli referendum prior to a final agreement.In June 1995, a new round of American-mediated security talks concentrated on security arrangements on and near the Golan Heights, with the area around the Sea of Galilee becoming the major point of contention. Plans were made for talks to continue in Washington, D.c., later that year.