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Clinton on Barak’s Generous Offer
by Ahmed Amr
July 17, 2004

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One of the urban legends that have gained wide currency over the last few years is that the Syrians and Palestinians rebuffed Barak’s “generous” peace overtures. Not according to Bill Clinton’s new book, My Life. His thousand-page diary, a day-by-day account of his two terms in office, sheds new light on how Barak and Netenyahu both deliberately sabotaged the peace process. On the Syrian front, Clinton’s book leaves the reader with no doubt that it was the Israelis who derailed the negotiations in Shepherdstown. The ex-president’s account is scattered all over his book. What follows is Clinton’s own version* of how Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak aborted the peace negotiations with the Syrians.

Clinton’s first visit with President Assad of Syria in Geneva (January, 1994):

I was impressed by his intelligence and his almost total recall of detailed events going back more than twenty years. Our discussion produced the two things I wanted: Assad’s first explicit statement that he was willing to make peace and establish normal relations with Israel, and his commitment to withdraw all Syrian forces from Lebanon and respect its independence once a comprehensive Middle East was reached.

I knew the success of the meeting resulted from more than personal chemistry. Assad has received a lot of economic support from the Soviet Union: that was gone now, so he needed to reach out to the West. (My Life, page 574-575)   

Clinton’s next meeting with Assad (October, 1994)

The next morning I flew to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, to see President Assad. I wanted Assad to know that I was committed to a Syrian-Israeli peace based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and that, if an agreement was reached, I would work hard to improve relations with his country. My meeting with Assad produced no big breakthrough, but he did give me some encouraging hints about how we might move forward. (626)

Clinton only comment on Wye River talks between the Israelis and Syrians (January 1996):

We began the year in foreign policy with Warren Christopher hosting talks between the Israelis and Syrians at Wye River Plantation in Maryland. (696)

Prelude to Shepherdstown finally (January 2000):

On January 3, I went to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to open peace talks between Syria and Israel. Ehud Barak had pressed me hard to hold the talks early in the year. He was growing impatient over the peace process with Arafat, and was unsure whether their differences over Jerusalem could be resolved. By contrast, he had told me months before that he was prepared to give the Golan Heights back to Syria as long as Israel’s concerns could be satisfied about its early-warning station on the Golan and its dependence on Lake Tiberias, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee, for one-third of its water supply.

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 by Barak. I had told them I was willing to do it.

Dennis Ross and our team had been making progress until Bibi Netenyahu defeated Peres in the election amid a rash of terrorist activity. Then the Syrian negotiations faltered. Now Barak wanted to start them up again, though as yet he was unwilling to reaffirm the precise words of the Rabin pocket commitment.

Barak had to contend with a very different Israeli electorate from the one Rabin had led. There were many more immigrants, and the Russians in particular were opposed to giving up the Golan. Natan Sharansky, who had become a hero in the west during his long imprisonment in the Soviet Union had accompanied Netenyahu to Wye in 1998, explained the Russians Jews’ attitude to me. He said they had come from the world’s largest country to one of its smallest ones, and didn’t believe in making Israel even smaller by giving up the Golan or the West Bank. They also considered Syria to be no threat to Israel. They weren’t at peace by were not at war either. If Syria attacked Israel; the Israelis could win easily. Why give up the Golan?

While Barak didn’t agree with this view, he had to contend with it. Nevertheless, he wanted to make peace with Syria, was confident the issues could be resolved, and wanted me to convene negotiations as soon as possible. By January, I had been working for more than three months with the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Shara, and by telephone with President Assad to set the stage for the talks.

Assad’s frailty and a stroke suffered by Foreign Minister Shara in the fall of 1999 heightened Barak’s sense of urgency. At his request, I sent Assad a letter saying I thought Barak was willing to make a deal if we could resolve the definition of the border, the control of the water, and the early-warning post, and that if they did reach and agreement, the United States would be prepared to establish bilateral relations with Syria, a move Barak had urged.

Assad replied a month later and in a letter that appeared to back away from his previous position, perhaps because of the uncertainties in Syria that his and Shara’s health problems had caused. However, a few weeks after that, when Madeline Albright and Dennis Ross went to see Assad and Shara, who seemed completely recovered, Assad told them that he wanted to resume negotiations and was ready to make peace because he believed Barak was serious. He even agreed to have Shara negotiate something he had not done before, as long as Barak would personally handle the Israeli side.

Barak accepted eagerly and wanted to begin immediately. The Washington talks got off to a bit of a rocky start with an aggressive public statement by Shara. Nevertheless, in private talks, when Shara suggested that we should start where the talks had left off in 1996, with Rabin’s pocket commitment of the June 4 line, provided Israel’s needs were met, Barak responded that while he had made no commitment on territory, “we do not erase history.” The two men then agreed that I could decide the order in which the issues – including borders, security, water and peace – would be discussed. Barak wanted the negotiations to continue uninterrupted; Shara agreed, and the two sides went home to prepare.

Clinton’s account of the Shepherdstown talks between Israel and Syria (January, 2000)

It quickly became apparent that the two sides were not that far apart on the issues. Syria wanted all of the Golan back but was willing to leave the Israelis a small strip of land, 10 meters, along the border of the lake; Israel wanted a wider strip of land. Syria wanted Israel to withdraw within eighteen months; Barak wanted three years. Israel wanted to stay in the early-warning station; Syria wanted it manned by personnel from the UN or perhaps from the US. Israel wanted guarantees on the quality and quantity of water flowing from the Golan into the lake; Syria agreed as long as it got the same guarantees on the water flow from Turkey. Israel wanted full diplomatic relations as soon as withdrawal began; Syria wanted something less until the withdrawal was complete.

The Syrians came to Shepherdstown in a positive and flexible frame of mind, eager to make an agreement. By contrast, Barak, who had pushed hard for the talks, decided, apparently on the basis of polling data, that he needed to slow-walk the process for a few days in order to convince the Israeli public that he was being a tough negotiator. He wanted me to use my good relationship with Shara and Assad to keep the Syrians happy while he said as little as possible during his self-imposed waiting period.

I was, to put it mildly, disappointed. If Barak had dealt with Syrians before or if he had given us some advance notice, it might have been manageable. Perhaps, as a democratically elected leader, he had to pay more attention to public opinion than Assad did. But Assad had his own political problems, and had overcome his notorious aversion to high-level involvement with the Israelis because he trusted me and had believed Barak’s assurances.

Barak had not been in politics long, and I thought he had gotten some very bad advice. In foreign affairs, polls are often useless; people hire leaders to win for them, and it’s the results that matter. Many of my most important foreign policy decisions had not been popular at first. If Barak made real peace with Syria, it would lift his standing in Israel and across the world, and increase his chances of success with the Palestinians. If he failed, a few days of good poll numbers would vanish in the wind. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t change Barak’s mind. He wanted me to help keep Shara on board while he waited, and to do it in the isolated setting of Shepherdstown, where there were few distractions from the business at hand.

Madeleine Albright and Dennis Ross tried to think of creative ways to at least clarify Barak’s commitment to the Rabin pocket commitment, including opening a back channel between Madeleine and Butheina Shaban, the only woman in the Syrian delegation. Butheina was an articulate, impressive woman who had always served as Assad’s interpreter when we met. She had been with Assad for years, and I was sure she was in Shepherdstown to guarantee the president an unvarnished version of what was happening.

On Friday, the fifth day, we presented a draft peace agreement with the two sides’ differences in brackets. The Syrians responded positively on Saturday night, and we began meetings on border and security issues. Again, the Syrians showed flexibility on matters, saying they would accept and adjustment to the strip of land bordering Galilee to as much as 50 meters, provided that Israel accepted the June 4 line as the basis of discussion. There was a practical validity to this; apparently the lake had shrunk in size in the last thirty years. I was encouraged, but it quickly became apparent that Barak still had not authorized anyone on his team to accept June 4, no matter what the Syrians offered.

On Sunday, at a lunch for Ehud and Nava Barak at Madeleine Albright’s farm, Madeleine and Dennis made a last pitch to Barak. Syria had shown flexibility on what Israel wanted, providing its needs were met; Israel had not responded in kind. What would it take? Barak said he wanted to resume the Lebanese negotiations. And if not, he wanted to break for several days and come back.

Shara was in no mood to hear this. He said that Shepherdstown was a failure, that Barak was not sincere, and that he would have to say as much to President Assad. At the last dinner, I tried again to get Barak to say something positive that Shara could take back to Syria. He declined; instead telling me privately that I could call Assad after we left Shepherdstown and say he would accept the June 4 line once the Lebanese negotiations resumed or were about to start. This meant Shara would go home empty-handed from negotiations he had been led to believe would be decisive, so much so that the Syrians had been willing to stay through the end of Ramadan and the Eid.

To make things worse, the latest bracketed text of our treaty leaked in the Israeli press, showing the concessions that Syria had offered without getting anything in return. Shara was subjected to intense criticism at home. It was understandably embarrassing to him, and to Assad. Even authoritarian governments are not immune to popular opinion and powerful interest groups.

When I called Assad with Barak’s offer to affirm the Rabin commitment and demarcate the border on the basis of it as long as the Lebanese negotiations also started, he listened without comment. A few days later, Shara called Madeleine Albright and rejected Barak’s offer, saying the Syrians would open negotiations on Lebanon only after the border demarcation was agreed upon. They had been burned once by being flexible and forthcoming, and they weren’t about to make the same mistake again.

For the time being we were stumped, but I thought we should keep trying. Barak still seemed to want the Syrian peace, and it was true that the Israeli public had not been prepared for the compromises that peace required. It was still in Syria’s interest to make peace, and soon. Assad was in ill health and had to pave the way for his son’s succession. Meanwhile, there was more than enough still to do on the Palestinian track. I asked Sandy, Madeleine, and Dennis to figure out what we should do next; and turned my attention to other things.  (starting on page 885) 


In his dairy, Clinton avoids mentioning that Barak pushed the Syrian track so he could freeze the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. At the time, Barak claimed that progress on the Syrian front would eventually result in a more favorable environment for resuming work on resolving his differences with the Palestinians. In the meantime, he followed Netenyahu’s example by expanding settlements in the West Bank. Barak never gave any valid reasons why Israel couldn’t simultaneously make progress on both fronts. Basically Barak’s only excuse was that he had to finish chewing his Syrian gum before taking a very slow walk back to negotiating with the Palestinians.

Once the Syrian talks showed signs of progress, Barak used the same tactic to avoid signing on the dotted line. It appears that he was caught off guard by Syria’s eagerness to make peace. At which point, he insisted on freezing the Syrian talks and moving on to the Lebanese front.  

Clinton’s diary is full of effusive praise of both Rabin and King Hussein. Netenyahu and Barak hardly get a positive word of acknowledgment. In fact, the ex-president’s diary clearly documents that he had to pull teeth to get Netenyahu to implement earlier Israeli commitments made by Rabin and Peres to partially withdraw from Hebron.

Netenyahu’s term was a series of provocations and assaults on the Oslo peace process. On page 752, Clinton gives a fairly accurate account on Netenyahu’s tactics “In April, I saw King Hussein and Prime Minister Netenyahu in an attempt to keep the peace process from falling apart. Violence had broken out again, in the wake of an Israeli decision to build new housing in Har Homa, an Israeli settlement on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. Every time Netenyahu took a step forward, as in the Hebron agreement, his governing coalition made him do something that drove a wedge between Israel and the Palestinians.”    

Clinton also hints at the neocons active participation in Netenyahu’s election campaign. It is now common knowledge that the neocons were on a mission to derail the Oslo peace process. Clinton notes that Netenyahu won “by promising to be tougher on terrorism and slower with the peace process, and by using American-style television ads, including some attacking Peres that were made with the help of a Republican media advisor from New York.”

On this count, the ex-president is being a little disingenuous. It wasn’t a single media advisor; it was a concerted effort by Likudnik Americans including Richard Perle, David Wurmser and Douglas Feith. In 1996, they advised Netenyahu to ditch the Oslo Accords and adopt a “new strategy.” A year later, Douglas Feith openly incited Israel to re-occupy the areas under Palestinian Authority control. These neocon operatives from the American chapter of the Likud partly can hardly be considered “Republicans”.

On January 13, 1998, Clinton makes a very significant entry in his diary. “The same day, the Middle East moved toward crisis as Prime Minister Netenyahu’s government, which still had not completed the overdue opening of the Gaza airport or provided safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, put the entire peace process in danger by voting to keep control of the West Bank indefinitely.” Clinton does not record if he even bothered to respond to this serious provocation. Even then, the Palestinians did not abandon what Arafat continued promising his people was a “beace brocess.” For over three years, the Palestinians were obliged to bite the bullet and wait for an Israeli peace partner while Netenyahu was systematically and publicly tearing up the Oslo agreement.

Through out his tenure at the White House, Clinton front-loaded his foreign policy team with professional Israel Firsters from the Lobby. Those who doubt the political theology of Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk can find them back at The Saban Center on Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution. The center is named after one of Brookings biggest financial backers, Haim Saban, an Israeli-American billionaire. This “institution” is one of the think tanks that front for Israeli interests in Washington. One of the donors that also support this outfit is The American Enterprise Institute, the Likudnik think tank that is associated with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.

Clinton was as guilty as most of the other Washington scam artists who prostitute Middle East foreign policy for their personal political ambitions. To his credit, he did try to persuade the Israeli lobby to consider the advantages of peace and he did immerse himself in the subject matter to the point where he became quite the expert on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The very human side of the man was genuinely enthusiastic about resolving the conflict and giving the Palestinians a measure of justice. But when push came to shove, it was Clinton the politician who decided to tie himself to the straight jacket designed by the Israeli lobby.

The Hillary Factor:

Perhaps because Hillary is now a junior member in the ranks of the neocon cabal, The ex-president makes no reference to “neo-conservatives” in his book. Last seen, the missus was leading a rally outside the United Nations to denounce the International Court’s decision to condemn Israel’s Apartheid wall.  These days, she is as vicious a Sharonista as one can find in the Senate.  

Hillary’s support of Sharon’s Palitentiary walls should surprise no one. In February 2002, the junior senator from New York was the honored guest of Binyamin Elon, the extremist who leads the Moledet party. Elon is an advocate of ethnic cleansing and vocally supports ‘transferring’ the Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza. On the occasion of Elon’s tete-a-tete with the lesser Clinton, Yossi Sarid of the Meretz party publicly rebuked Hillary for her brazen support of this fascist. “It was embarrassing to see an important representative of democracy sitting to dinner with Minister Elon, who openly espouses the racist doctrine of transfer.”

The purpose of bringing up Hillary’s flirtation with Israeli right wing extremists is to point out that Bill was under severe constraints when writing his account of Barak’s “generous” offer to the Palestinians. It is not hard to imagine that the ex-President penned his memoirs with one eye on his spouse's political fortunes. As Hillary would put it, she was now part of a “vast right wing conspiracy” – of the Israeli variety. 

In spite of these “Hillary” constraints, Bill Clinton was obliged to point out that when presented with the final parameters  “Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes”. Neither could the Israelis. All Barak ever offered was to hold a referendum on Clinton’s final parameters. The Israelis did hold a referendum and Ariel Sharon was elected with the promise to annex East Jerusalem and 58% of the West Bank.  The new Israeli government immediately moved to bury the badly mauled carcass of the Oslo peace process.

Like the Syrian peace talks at Shepherdstown, The whole Oslo process was a scam. Clinton’s diary clearly demonstrates that Netenyahu spent three years deliberately sabotaging the agreement. Barak’s mission was to give it a final blow and pin the failure on the Palestinians. Sharon was tasked with conducting the final burial ceremonies. And Hillary is more than happy to dance over Oslo’s grave.  

Ahmed Amr is the Editor of NileMedia. He can be reached at:

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