To the Editor:
The achievement of true peace between Israel and Syria is a laudable goal and could be a cornerstone of regional security. Unfortunately, in making the case for an Israeli-Syrian accord, Richard Haass and Martin Indyk ("Beyond Iraq," January/February 2009) misrepresent the proposals made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Syria during his term in office, from 1996 to 1999. They assert that Netanyahu offered a "full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights" to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
This is simply untrue. In fact, in 1996 Netanyahu sought clarifications from U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher that the hypothetical statements made orally by Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister of Israel, about withdrawal from the Golan -- known among diplomats as "the Rabin deposit" -- did not bind the State of Israel. Both of us were dispatched to Washington to secure that understanding, which we obtained after a series of meetings with the highest levels of the Clinton administration. Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who also headed Rabin's contacts with the Syrians, confirms in his memoir, The Brink of Peace, that Christopher wrote in a letter to Netanyahu that his government was not in any way bound by the contents of the diplomatic record from that earlier period.
Moreover, in 1998, when Netanyahu exchanged messages with Assad through Ronald Lauder, at no point did Netanyahu agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights, as Haass and Indyk suggest. At the end of this initiative, Assad did indeed request a map from Netanyahu specifically indicating the extent of a future Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights. Clearly, the language used during these contacts between Jerusalem and Damascus did not satisfy the Syrian leader, who sought to establish Syrian sovereignty right up to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Netanyahu refused to provide any map of withdrawal, let alone the line that Assad sought. At the end of these contacts, Assad inquired again just where Netanyahu envisioned the future Israeli-Syrian border in relation to the 1967 line. He wanted to know how far east the final line would be: "Dozens of meters, hundreds of meters, or what?" Netanyahu's answer, which was communicated to Damascus, was that the border would be "miles" east. (The entire Golan Heights is 12 miles wide.) In light of this response, Assad decided to end his negotiations with Israel.
Netanyahu had additional reasons for taking this position and not exposing Israel to the dangers inherent in a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Back in 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford had written to Rabin that although the United States had not yet taken a stance on where Israel's ultimate borders should be, when it did so, it "would give great weight to Israel remaining on the Golan Heights." Repeatedly during the 1990s, U.S. administrations assured Israeli governments that the commitments made by Washington in the Ford letter would still be respected.
The Golan Heights remain a vital line of defense for Israel. The stability of Israel's northern border with Syria partly emanates from the fact that at present, the Israel Defense Forces are deployed on the Golan Heights and not in the valley below.
Former Foreign Policy Adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Brigadier General (Res.)
Former Military Secretary to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Haass and Indyk reply: