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Middle East Team Dispatch

Meeting the Challenges? The Israeli-Syrian Peace Negotiations
February 2, 2000


Entangled in conflict for decades, is a peace settlement in the future for Syria and Israel or will the conflict continue? This entanglement is just one piece to the ever puzzling struggle between Israel and the Arab nations. Deciphering the pieces of the puzzle is not difficult….it is the challenge of solving the puzzle which has yet to be mastered. In recent months, there has been a renewed attempt by Israel and Syria to face the challenges before them. On December 8, 1999, after four years of halted peace negotiations, President Clinton announced that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad agreed to resume the negotiations from the point at which they had been halted in January of 1996. Although the challenge of a peace settlement between the nations may be a difficult one, progress is only made by moving forward.

Located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, Syria is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iraq, to the south by Palestine and Jordan and to the west by Lebanon. Throughout much of its history, Syria's relations with its neighbors have been marred by border disputes, as is the case with Israel. Other areas of difficult foreign relations are rooted in disputes over politics and water resource sharing. Syrian independence was achieved after World War II, closing a four century long chapter of Ottoman Turkish domination and over two decades of semi-colonial administration by France. Once independent, Syria experienced a succession of unstable governments until a 1970 coup. From this bloodless coup, a new leader came into power. Then Minister of Defense and Air Force Commander, Lt. General Hafiz al-Assad gained leadership of Syria, and continues to lead the country to this day. President Assad is the leading Syrian figure in the negotiation process between his country and Israel.


coup - sudden overthrow of government, usually characterized by force
negotiations - confer with view to compromise or agreement
atonement - make amends for wrong doing/deeds
relinquishing - give up, let go, surrender, resign
speculation - engage in conjectural thought or writing
succession - ollowing in order

On the other side of the peace process is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Barak has held the position of Prime Minister since May of 1999, after a landslide victory over Benjamin Netanyahu, who had held the position since 1996. Israel is located along the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Spanning over 35 centuries, the history of the Jewish people is rooted in the land of Israel. It was in this land that the cultural, national and religious identity of the Jewish people was formed. The establishment and recognition of the State of Israel renewed Jewish independence, which had been lost 2,000 years ago. However, along with the formation of the State of Israel also came political and cultural eruptions throughout the Middle East.

Conflicts and wars between Israel and various Arabic States include:

  • 1948-1949: Opposition of the Arab States to the formation of a Jewish State in what they considered to be Arab territories (invaded by Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq)
  • 1956: Israel attacked Egypt after the nationalization of the Suez Canal
  • 1967 Six-Day War: Israel responded to Egyptian provocation; Israel takes control of the Golan Heights
  • 1973-1974 Yom Kippur War: Egypt, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of atonement Yom Kippur
  • 1978: Palestinians attacked Israel
  • 1982: Israel launched a massive attack to destroy all military bases of the Palestine Liberation Army

Of the many conflicts, the invasion and capture of a territory known as the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967 proved to be the pivotal event in Israeli-Syrian relations. In turn, the 1981 implementation of Israeli law over the Golan Heights further fueled the fire between the two nations. Today, the territory of the Golan Heights remains to be a heated topic of debate between the two sides.

There are four issues at the heart of the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations:

  1. The border between Israel and Syria after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights
  2. The security of the two countries in the wake of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights
  3. Water resources
  4. The establishment of "normal peaceful relations" between the two countries which have been at odds since the 1940's

The renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria resumed on December 15, 1999 in Washington D.C. Another round of talks took place from January 3-11, 2000. The product of these initial negotiations was a basic framework for the two sides to follow, with the end goal of reaching an agreement. The seven-page document, crafted by the United States, outlined all the progress made by the two sides in the 1996 talks, as well as the more recent 1999 talks. In addition, the document outlined each side's positions, along with the steps necessary for productive negotiation. With the framework outlined for them, the challenge for Israel and Syria is to find solutions to their areas of conflict.

Territory and security were to be the key topics of negotiation during the January 19, 2000 continued peace talks. However, the negotiation process hit an uphill climb when Syria indefinitely postponed the meeting. Syria cancelled, stating that they would continue the negotiations only when the Israelis were committed to a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, re-creating the pre-1967 war status of the territory. Israel, however, argues they will only commit to a full withdrawal from when Syria commits to security guarantees. While Syria's main position involves territory, Israeli motivation is primarily security.

Golan's high elevation gives Israel a remarkable vantage point to monitor Syrian movements. The plateau provides Israel with a clear view of the Syrian military deployments. By relinquishing control of this territory, Israel would be jeopardizing their security and opening the door to potential attack. Therefore, Israel is negotiating security arrangements aimed at replacing the security they currently have by way of the Golan Heights territory. This is one of the junctures where the United States fits into the puzzle. Israel has submitted a list of equipment they will require for security purposes. In addition, they are requesting access to U.S. satellite intelligence information as a way of compensation for their territory loss. To date, Israel will not give up their position in the Golan Heights without these security requirements.

The United States, President Clinton specifically, has been instrumental in the negotiation process. There has been speculation that the U.S. will be paying the multi-billion dollar bill for peace between Israel and Syria (sited from In addition, the United States may be the means of security Israel requires. Further, successful negotiation between Syria and Israel could potentially mean U.S. aid for Syria. While the United States and Israel have experienced a long and peaceful relationship that has not been the case between the U.S. and Syria. Syria would benefit from U.S. support. In turn, the United States would benefit from a peace settlement between the two nations. A Syrian-Israeli negotiation might be a catalyst of change in the greater Israeli-Arab conflict. A peace settlement will provide the U.S. with stronger ground on which to stand when asserting their interests in the Middle East. In essence, all parties have a stake in the peace talks, if they ever resume.

Progress is a succession of steps. The initial steps have been made, which is often the most difficult part of the process. As the Israeli-Syrian conflict/negotiation continues to unfold, let us all hope the puzzle pieces begin to fit and the challenges continue to be met. Standing still will not get anyone anywhere, all they have to do is keep moving forward…


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