Monday, August 10, 2009

The Peace Process Between Israel and Syria from 1991 until 2000 : The Golan Heights


Syria and Israel has some political problems since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. One of these problems is the Golan Heights. Syria controlled the Golan Heights from 1946 till 1967. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria after 6 Days War in 1967. Moreover, Israel annexes the Golan Heights via its laws to the territory in 1981. When Hafiz al-Asad came to power in Syria in 1970, Syrian foreign policy changed and it mainly focused on taking back the Golan Heights from Israel because, Syria lost the Golan Heights during the ministry of defense of Hafiz al-Asad.

On the other hand, the most important thing here is the peace process between Israel and Syria. It started with Madrid Peace Conference and still continues. This article will take the peace process between Israel and Syria from 1991 until 2000. It will also show what issues were discussed, what progress was made in this peace process. Of course, the problem analysis will be in this article. Moreover, this article will explain why the talks ultimately failed. In the conclusion, it will ensure overview of the analysis, briefly and it will try to mention about current status of the Golan Heights.


The Golan Heights is between Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan as geographically so It has strategically and geographical importance in the Middle East. Geopolitics is very important, because, it has influences on a state’s foreign policy behavior. Why the Golan Heights is important explained below;

Wh is Golan Heights important for Israel?

The Golan Heights is important for Israel, because; it is very strategic place, and it has very rich water resources.

As mentioned before, it has geopolitical importance because it has borders with Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. This means that if Israel has the Golan Heights, this area can become a buffer zone for Israel and it will be very important for Israel’s security. Israel can prevent terrorist attacks before these terrorist attacks reached the Israeli cities Haifa and Acre because; ‘from the western Golan, it is only about 60 miles -- without major terrain obstacles -- to Haifa and Acre, Israel's industrial heartland. The Golan -- rising from 400 to 1700 feet in the western section bordering on pre¬1967 Israel -- overlooks the Huleh Valley, Israel's richest agricultural area. In the hands of a friendly neighbor, the escarpment has little military importance. If controlled by a hostile country, however, the Golan has the potential to again become a strategic nightmare for Israel’ (Jewish Virtual Library, 2009). Moreover, it has very rich, clean (drinkable) water resources and known that the Middle East has very big deserts so the regions need water resources. For example, there are important streams such as ‘Jilabun, Daliyot, Yehudia, Zavitan, Meitzar, Samakh, Orvim, Hamdal, El Al, Nov, and Yarmouk River’ (Golan 67, 2009). It is also near the Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee).

Why is Golan Heights important for Syria?

The Golan Heights is also important for Syria. Firstly, it has very reach water resource and Syria needs these water resources. ‘Turkey, with the completion of the GAP project, plans to fully utilize its share of the Euphrates River, which is the only reliable source of running water for Syria. Syria needs the waters of the Euphrates river to continue its irrigation programs and to keep the water levels high in the Assad Lake in order to sustain the hydroelectric production’ (ICE, 1997). Because of this, the water resources’ importance increased on the Golan Heights.

Also, the Golan Heights is very close the Syrian capital city, Damascus. It is approximately 25km from the Golan Heights. Because of this, the Golan Heights is very strategic place for Syria.


In 1960s, under Ba’ath party, the peace seemed to be impossible between Syria and Israel. However, when Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria accepted the United Nations Security Council resolution 242, the doors of the peace process have opened. Actually, Hafiz al-Assad opposed the peace talks with Israel until Israel does full withdraw from the Golan Heights. ‘Instead, Syria accepted direct unconditional bilateral negotiations with Israel. The best Asad could get was U.S. assurances that the United States considered UN resolution 242 to apply on all fronts and the Israeli annexation of the Golan to be illegitimate’ (Freedman, 1998: 143).

The peace process starts with the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Actually this conference was organized by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The aim of this conference is starting the peace process between Israel and some Arab countries such as Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Madrid Peace Conference is very important for the relations between Israel and Syria, because, this conference bring together Syria and Israel. Also, it started the peace process between Syria and Israel. ‘Syria’s acceptance of this invitation was a significant event, marking the first time in the history of Hafiz al-Asad’s regime that Syria expressed its readiness to participate in a regional peace process that would include direct negotiations with Israel’ (Inbar, 1995: 151). Actually, at the end of the Madrid Conference, Arabs and Syrians did not sign any peace agreement. However, this was important conference because of starting the direct negotiations between Arabs and Israelis. ‘This peace conference was expected to discuss a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which would also entail Israel’s withdrawal in, or from, the Golan. According to UN Resolution 242; Israel would continue to establish Jewish settlements in ‘Judaea and Samaria’ and in Golan’ (Quandt, 2001: 312).

After this conference, peace talks continued with Oslo process in 1993 but talks in Oslo was generally about the Israeli Palestinian problems. The issue of the Golan Heights was not talked in Oslo, generally.

However, in January 1994, there was a meeting between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafiz al- Assad in Geneva. However, it failed because there was no positive progress in the Syrian Israeli peace talks.
Actually, the relations between Syria and Israel could go well in Rabin’s time. Even, ‘the diplomatic record shows that a pledge of full withdrawal was given by Rabin, through Secretary of State Warren Christopher’ (Seale, 2000: 235). But this full withdrawal meant withdrawal to the 1967 line. However, the leadership changed in Israel because, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. The relations between Israel and Syria slipped to a new low, after Likud Party’s candidate Binyamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israeli elections in 1996 because, Netanyahu did not want to compensate on the Golan Heights. On the other hand, before Netanyahu, Shimon Peres had become Prime Minister of Israel and in February of 1996 Shimon Peres broke off talks with Syria because off Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in Israel by Hamas and Asad had failed to prevent this suicide bomb attacks in that time.

‘May-June 1999 — Ehud Barak, a former negotiator in Israel-Syria talks, is elected Israeli prime minister, and President Assad praises him as a “strong and honest” leader who wants peace with Syria. July 1999 — Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discloses that he had indirect contacts with Assad during his three years in office. He says no agreement was reached because Israel refused to accede to Syria’s demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan’ (JTA, 2008). United States try to be a mediator between Israel and Syria for peace talks but there was no result of this mediating because there was no agreement between Israel and Syria after these peace talks. Even Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister of Syria, Farouk al-Sharaa was meeting for this peace process in 1999.

Although, there is no certain result of the peace talks between Tel-Aviv and Damascus in 1999, the last chance appeared in 2000 through the Geneva summit for reaching a peace agreement. However, they missed this chance because of ‘Assad's unwillingness to compromise with the Israelis, this is nothing new. No one in the Clinton administration seriously believed that peace between Israel and Syria could be brought about with anything less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights’ (Gambill, 2000: 5).

What issues were discussed and were not discussed in the peace process?

Although, the main issue was the Golan Heights, there were important issues that discussed in this peace process between Israel and Syria. For example, the main issues in Madrid Peace Talks were borders and water rights. Furthermore, ‘Syria argued that access to Lake Tiberias; Israel insisted on the borders of the Palestine Mandate (1922-48), which would put all lake access in Israel. A settlement in southern Lebanon, presumably exchanging Israeli withdrawal for security guarantees on the Israeli-Lebanese border, would also have to be part of any Israeli-Syrian agreement’ (Freedman, 1998: 145).

On the other hand, generally, Syria and Israel did not discuss Palestinian refugees and the establishing the state of Palestine. In addition they did not discuss decreasing the military capabilities such as number of soldiers in army or destroying or reducing the nuclear weapons. Also they did not talk about Syrian sponsored organization and their futures such as Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.

What progress was made? 
Actually, there was no certain progress in this peace process but there are small movements to try to find a way for peace. Firstly, both sides tried to talk with each other. Before Madrid Peace Talks, Syrian and Israeli officials did not meet face to face but after this process, they met face to face, many times. Also another important thing is Asad agreed the Mount Hermon is belong Israelis. This is important because this mountain was a part of Golan Heights according to Israeli annexation in 1981.

Why did the talks ultimately fail?
The peace talks ultimately failed because of some reasons. Actually, these reasons base on historical background of the relationship between Israel and Syria. The first reason is Syrian perspective on Israel. Syria always sees itself as the hearth of Arabism. Hence, the establishment of Israel on Palestine lands in 1948 formed the roots of problems between these two states. Syria opposed the idea of Zionism. Because of this Hafiz al-Asad was opposing every movement of Israel. The second reason for failure of peace talks is both sides did not trust each other so there was mistrust between them. They were rivals and enemies of each other so enemies do not trust each other. Thus, there was no certain progress in the peace process. Third reason is that unwillingness and disbelieving the peace process. Maybe Assad never believes to reach a peace agreement with Israel. Also, Netanyahu’s unwillingness to talk about the Golan Heights when he became the Prime Minister of Israel in 1996 because he had not wanted to compensate on the Golan Heights.

As a result, the peace talks ultimately failed because there was no peace agreement between Israel and Syria at the end of the talks.


Maybe, Syria and Israel did not reach a peace agreement on the Golan Heights between 1991 and 2000 but they are still trying to reach a peace agreement if it is difficult. For instance when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February of 2007, these two leaders agreed on Turkish mediating for negotiations between Syria and Israel. Negotiations are still continuing between these two countries.

However, this article bases on the peace process between Israel and Syria from 1991 until 2000. Firstly, this article tried to show what the Golan Heights problem is between Israel and Syria, why the Golan Heights is important for both sides. Secondly, how the peace process started and what progress were made from 1991 until 2000. There were also details of the peace process between Israel and Syria that is made in years between 1991 and 2000 in this term paper. Finally, it showed why the talks ultimately failed.

İsa Burak GONCA


1)Freedman, R. O. (1998) The Middle East and the peace process: the impact of the Oslo Accords. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

2)Gambill, G. C. (2000) Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Implications of the Geneva Summit, the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum, Vol.2, No. 4.

3)Golan 67 (2009) A piece of the Heart, Available at: (accessed on 07 May 2009)

4)Jewish Virtual Library (2009) The Golan Heights, 17 February. Available at: (accessed on 18 May 2009)

5)JTA (2008) Time line of Israel-Syria relations, 22 May. Available at: (accessed on 23 May 2009)

6)Inbar, E. (1995) Regional Security Regimes: Israel and Its Neighbors. State University of New York Press, New York.

7)Quandt, W. B. (2001) Peace process: American diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Seale, P. (2000) The Syria-Israel Negotiations: Who Is Telling the Truth. Journal of
Palestine Studies. Vol. 29, No. 2.