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Patrick Seale

a candid conversation with Patrick Seale about the Israel-Syria negotiations, about the proclamation of a Palestinian state and a secret commitment passed on to the Syrians that could change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Patrick Seale Patrick Seale Patrick Seale
"Mr. Rabin said, I quote, he said: "Israel is prepared to withdraw from the Golan to the 4th of June 1967 lines, provided that Israel´s needs are met." So, this was a very clear commitment which was passed on to the Syrians."
"Now, when Prime Minister Barak came to office, he was reluctant to endorse that commitment... Mr. Barak said: "Now, me, Barak, I´m being asked to make it public, ahead of the negotiations. This is very difficult. This would be political suicide.""
"Then the other day, recently, through a call, Mr. Barak gave a briefing to his cabinet, which was leaked to the media in Israel, and he said: "All my predecessors have accepted to deal on the bases of full withdrawal to the 4th of June line.""

Introduction

P atrick Seale is an outstanding British expert on Middle East affairs, the biographer of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He has had a varied career as author, academic, literary agent and art dealer, foreign correspondent for Reuters and The Observer in France, the Middle East and Africa, and as columnist and political consultant. He is the author of many books, including The Struggle for Syria, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. Recently, he helped HRH General Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz write Desert Warrior, his memoir of the Gulf War.

To get a fix on the progress in peace negotiations in the Middle East we went to Vienna to interview Patrick Seale. We have the proper background to conduct a dangerous and, if need be secret interview.

As we arrived from Munich in Innsbruck by plane, we didn´t get a car to rent in the whole town. After spending about 200 bucks for phoning around, and wasting some time, because no bank in that town wanted to change American Express travellerchecks - what they all wanted was, that we should be "cooperative", whatever they meant.

So we took the night train to Vienna. After a very comfortable journey we arrived in Vienna the day after and took a white mercedes taxi to the Hotel de France.

We arrived in the Hotel at 10:00 A.M. We shook hands and Patrick Seale said: "What do you want to know?"

One last note: Not surprisingly, there have been reprisals. Police broke into the room in Innsbruck, damaged two doors and looked for the notes of the interview. When they left they nicked a can of coke.


Interview

SAST REPORT: Mr. Seale, how do you evaluate the meeting between American President Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez al-Asad in Geneva?

SEALE: President Clinton, on his visit to the Indian subcontinent, announced that he was going to meet President Asad in Geneva on Sunday, possibly on Monday. Now, this is an important development in the search for a formula to resume Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

It is important, first of all, because it demonstrates President Clinton's continuing contribution, continuing involvement in the search for a comprehensive peace. No other American president, not even Jimmy Carter, who was the architect of the Camp David Accords in 1978, not even Jimmy Carter has devoted so much time and effort and personal diplomacy as President Clinton to the search for a comprehensive peace. So, throughout the nineties he was very active.

Secondly, the fact that both leaders are taking the risk of holding this summit means that they will almost certainly announce the resumption of talks. This is a way of dramatising the fact that there is a political will now to proceed. This also suggests that a formula has been found to resolve some of the major questions between Israel and Syria, and notably about Syrian access to the Lake of Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) and of course Israel's insistence that the waters of the lake must be under exclusive Israeli control and cannot be shared with anybody else. That is one key question: where the border should be drawn, the 4th June 1967 lines.

The second important question has to do with security arrangements on either side of the border. Here again, the Americans are playing an important role in reaching agreement between the parties and perhaps President Clinton might even offer to guarantee that border - to give an American guarantee on that border.

SAST REPORT: What does this precisely mean?

SEALE: It would certainly mean that American troops might be based on the Golan between the combatants, of course a formal American guarantee means that no side would dare to cross that border illegitimately.

SAST REPORT: Your researches have brought you to the conclusion that the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has already promised to return the Golan. Would you explain how you come to this conclusion?

SEALE: Now, it's a long story. I will try and give you a very tight precis. Because, you know, I could speak for one hour on this subject. [laughs] I have examined the record, the written record ...

SAST REPORT: You have seen it?

SEALE: Yes, I have seen the written record of the talks between President Asad and Warren Christopher, who was the American Secretary of State at the time. Also the record of the telephone conversations which President Clinton and President Asad had in that period. They had many, many telephone conversations. Now, it is very clear in that record that in August 1993 Prime Minister Rabin gave Warren Christopher a commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan. Of course it was conditional on Israel's needs being met on security and normalisation.

But President Asad was not satisfied with that. He said full withdrawal is not enough, "I want ..., does Rabin mean full withdrawal to the line of the 4th of June 67?", which was the line Syria was occupying before the June War 1967. He had to wait until the following year, until July 1994, before Mr. Rabin gave Warren Christopher that clarification.

Rabin said, I quote, he said: "Israel is prepared to withdraw from the Golan to the 4th of June 1967 lines, provided that Israel's needs are met." So, this was a very clear commitment which was passed on to the Syrians.

Now, when Prime Minister Barak came to office, he was reluctant to endorse that commitment, that deposit, as it was called. He called it the "deposit in the American pocket", as the commitment was given to the Americans. So, Mr. Barak said, privately he said, "When Rabin gave the commitment, he gave it secretly, he didn't give it publicly, he gave it secretly to the Americans to convey to the Syrians." The idea was, once all the elements of the peace package were agreed, then it would become public.

But the Prime Minister said: "Now, me, Barak, I´m being asked to make it public, ahead of the negotiations. This is very difficult. This would be political suicide." So, he was very reluctant to do it. But, he was prepared to take a number of steps: He said, first of all, that he would not ask President Clinton to withdraw the "deposit". Then he said he would have no intention of asking him to withdraw it in the future. Then most recently he appears to have agreed that the border should be based on the 4th of June 67 line. So, these are all semantic formulations ........ but is moving close.

Then the other day, recently, through a call, he gave a briefing to his cabinet, which was leaked to the media in Israel, and he said: "All my predecessors have accepted to deal on the bases of full withdrawal to the 4th of June line." And he mentioned Rabin and of course Schimon Peres, who followed Rabin. He even mentioned Benjamin Netanjahu, which was not exactly accurate, but nevertheless. So, what he seems to be saying is, he too is prepared to move in this direction.

But nevertheless, there remains, as I have said, this question of the lake, access to the waters of the lake. So there has to be a clever formula which will give the Syrians the shore line, but will ensure for the Israelis, that there will be no sharing of the water, and that the water will have total security in terms of pollution, environmental damage, in the terms of the flow of water to the lake.

SAST REPORT: Another question: Do you see any connection between the murder of Rabin and his promise?

SEALE: Not really.

SAST REPORT: Not really?

SEALE: No, I don't see the ...

SAST REPORT: But, maybe?

SEALE: No, no, no ... Rabin was really killed by an extremist who did't want Israel to surrender any land to the Palestinians. You see, the Messianic Jews, those who believe that God gave the whole land of Israel to the Jews, they are not so concerned with the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights is not part of what they consider to be Erez Israel. It's more the Judea and Samaria [area]. It was more the deal with the Palestinians of Oslo which inflamed extremists like Amir who killed, who assassinated Rabin.

SAST REPORT: So you do not doubt the official version of the assassination?

SEALE: No. I don't think one can doubt the official version. I mean there are questions of Israel, about the role of security services. Were they effective enough? Was there a cover up of some sort? Why was Amir not detained before? Did they have advance information of his intentions? Things of this sort. But I think nobody doubts now that this was the work of an Israeli, a Jewish extremist. That he was worried about giving up the land of Israel, as they call it, to the Palestinians. They believe that every inch is theirs. And that somehow Rabin was committing a sin by giving up land to the Palestinians. It wasn't his promise to give back the Golan to Syria which triggered that reaction.

SAST REPORT: What actually happened in the background? Is there anything hidden behind the curtain?

SEALE: I don't think so ... I mean, this is more an internal Israeli political struggle. Rabin's widow, Lea Rabin, I think has voiced some doubts about the role of security services in protecting her husband. But, I don't think there is any doubt now about the nature of the assassin, about his motives. As I say, there may have been some mistakes committed by the heads of ... by the security services in not detecting this man beforehand, and not preventing the assassination and in not giving adequate protection to the Prime Minister. But, I don't think there is anything else one could legitimately question.

SAST REPORT: If one investigates the case of Aldo Moro assassinated (09.05.1978) by the Red Brigades ...

SEALE: Yes, Aldo Moro, the Italian Prime Minister who was assassinated ... You have drawn the parallels.

SAST REPORT: One can also find parallels with the assassination of Alfred Herrhausen, chairman of West Germany's Deutsche Bank (30.11.1989), by the Red Army Faction.

SEALE: I don't think one should not look for conspiracies.

SAST REPORT: It seems that the mentioned cases may have been professionally masterminded by the same man.

SEALE: Each case is so different, on terms of motivation. I don't think one should see this as a pattern. I mean, what the Rabin case illustrates, is how divided Israeli opinion is in this question. And how the creation of settlements on Palestinian land, by extremist Messianic Jews - many of them coming from the United States - has created an almost insuperable problem in the settlement of this dispute.

And I hold the Americans responsible for allowing the settlement program to proceed over the years, because they have, directly or indirectly, funded this program, by giving Israel tens of billions of dollars in aid, indeed something like 80 billion dollars of aid since the late seventies, huge sums. So, they had leverage of Israel which they did not use. They have allowed the settlement program to develop, which, as I say, has created an insuperable problem.

SAST REPORT: But now they have to go ...

SEALE: Well, there are 300.000 people there. No Israeli government is strong enough to get them out. Some of them will have to go, some will remain, there will be blocks of settlements. But it's a problem, because it will prevent the emergence of a truly viable Palestinian state.

SAST REPORT: Which problem do you see for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and for Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, if Arafat proclaims a free Palestinian state?

SEALE: Well, the proclamation of the state is not really so important ...

SAST REPORT: Not so important?

SEALE: The proclamation of the state in itself. No. What is important, is what happens on the ground. Will the Israelis concede to the Palestinians a contiguous territory where a viable state can be established. Or will they insist on the "Swiss-Cheese-formula", which is a series of fragmented cantons, without any contiguity, divided through Israeli checkpoints. That formula is really a formula for future conflict, because many Palestinians will not accept it. And the next generation will form a new PLO, a new intifada, new terrorism.

So, it is very much in Israel's interest to be generous at this stage, and to try and solve the problem on the basis of international legitimacy, which means a viable Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel, on at least 90 % of the occupied territories. But with the problems of the refugees, which needs to be resolved by huge international effort, by Jerusalem being the capital of both states, with settlements, major settlements right in the heart of the Palestinian state removed and the borders settled once and for all. And these are crucial questions which will take great courage on the Israeli side to resolve, because they risk civil war. We've seen how fanatical Jews can behave: the assassination of Rabin. So, this is the meaning of the Rabin assassination. The Israeli society is profoundly divided on these questions. And a lot of work remains to be done.

SAST REPORT: One more question ...

SEALE: [laughs] This is like an examination. [laughs again]

SAST REPORT: What do you think about the sanctions imposed on the Iraq?

SEALE: My view ist that for many years past now this policy has been bancrupt. The American and British policy is a huge mistake. I think the time has long since come to draw a line under the Gulf War and to rehabilitate Iraq. We may not like Saddam Hussein but the West and the international community has dealt with many unpleasant leaders, unpleasant dictators in the past. The cost to the Iraqi society is now too great to tolerate. And I believe that 22 million suffering and angry Iraqis pose a much greater threat to the stability of that region that any weapon which Saddam Hussein may still be hiding in his basement.

So, I feel, really, wisdom would say, that the sanctions must be lifted, that Iraq must be led back into the community of nations. That the idea of punishing Iraq exclusively is wrong. We have to remember that Iraq was the ally of the West in the First Gulf War against Iran, that the whole world supported Iraq at that time, and that the punishment of Iraq looks very much like an attempt to protect Israeli monopoly of weapons of mass destruction. So, it is really time for this problem to be resolved. Because the future of Iraq is a crucial problem overhanging the whole Gulf region and it could infect and destabilize the whole of that region.

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Photo: interview audio.GIF audio:
Patrick Seale about the sanctions on Irak.


photography by SAST REPORT

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