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The View from Damascus’

To the Editors:

The late president of Egypt Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat used to state that 70 percent of the Arab-Israeli conflict had stemmed from the “psychological barrier” between Arabs and Jews, who mutually harbor fears, anxieties, suspicions, and mistrust. Sadat had indeed contributed to cracking that barrier and to alleviating the concerns of many Israelis (and Egyptians) when he made his historic and bold journey to Jerusalem in November 1977.

Alas, Asad was not Sadat and Syria is not Egypt; and in his article “The View from Damascus” [NYR, June 15] Mr. Sadik al-Azm discusses the Syrians’ psychological and ideological inhibitions concerning peace with Israel. But the author does not allude to Syrian perceptions regarding Israeli fears and concerns, stemming, for example, from the equation of Israel to Nazism in Syrian official organs and textbooks.

Nevertheless, it is comforting to learn from Al-Azm’s account that Syrian intellectuals no longer have a monolithic view concerning Israeli political leaders and parties, and how they distinguish between Barak and Netanyahu, Labor and Likud. Following Barak’s accession to power the prospects for a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement have been promising, according to Al-Azm. Indeed, with the ascendancy of Bashar al-Asad, the chances for such an agreement have been reinforced; this following the recent disengagement of Israel from southern Lebanon, and in view of the Syrian and Israeli vested interests in a peace agreement.

Moshe Ma’oz
Professor of Islamic and
Middle Eastern Studies
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Israel

To the Editors:

Most Israelis, I am sure, are as weary and exhausted by the half-century of war as I understand from Sadik al-Azm that most Syrians are. They likely share Mr. Al-Azm’s hope for, and endorsement of, a formal Israeli-Syrian peace at an early date. His article is an unprecedented public step by a leading Syrian intellectual, and will greatly encourage liberal Israelis to press their government to show flexibility and imagination—all the more so since the death of President Asad shortly after his article was published.

I happen to have been among the first involved in the so-called Copenhagen initiative mentioned in Mr. Al-Azm’s article. Led by Herbert Pundik (Israel/Denmark), Marwan Barguti (Palestine), the late Lutfi Huli (Egypt), and retired general Ihsan Shurdun (Jordan), it was meant to be, and still is, a kind of Egyptian-Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli PEACE NOW movement and, at least in Israel, an active political lobby. It is an ongoing initiative. Its last public major event took place in Cairo last summer and was attended by leading intellectuals, fifty Egyptian, fifty Jordanian, fifty Palestinian, and a like number of Israelis, promising to give their governments “hell” if a comprehensive and just peace is not quickly arrived at. A similar conference is planned in Tel Aviv this coming fall. The founding conference in Copenhagen did indeed take place, in 1997. It adopted the very resolution—cited by Mr. Al-Azm—that created such a constructive furor in some of the Arab countries that Mr. Al-Azm writes about. Its content is of interest to this day. Here are some excerpts:

COPENHAGEN DECLARATION

Egyptians, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, and peace-loving people from all over the world are gathered in Copenhagen to establish an international alliance for Arab- Israeli peace. Peace is too important to be left only to governments. People-to-people contacts are vital to the success of the peace efforts in the region. As long as the popular base remains weak, the peace process may falter. We are gathering in Copenhagen to contribute to a comprehensive and lasting resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict before the end of this century and to commence an era of durable and just peace in which the whole Middle East should enjoy stability, security, and prosperity….

We plan to hold public meetings, lobby governments, monitor progress and setbacks in the peace process as well as dis-crimination, collective punishment, abuse of human rights, and violence. We will mobilize public opinion behind the peace effort….

We are deeply concerned about the stalemate in the Israeli-Syrian, Israeli- Lebanese tracks, about possible deadlocks in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the implementation of the Interim Agreement, and about the eruption of violence that has in the past led to the loss of Arab and Israeli lives….

We need each other and we are determined to close ranks with all peace-loving people to attain these objectives. In order to do that, the signatories to this declaration have agreed on the following:

å?The attainment of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples will resolve the core problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We…call on concerned governments to act vigorously and speed up the full implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements in letter and spirit, faithfully and honestly, and particularly to restore full normality to and improvement of the lives of the Palestinians. We call on the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority to reach fair agreement on all outstanding final status issues (Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, security, and water) as soon as possible, certainly no later than May 5, 1999, as stipulated in the Oslo accords. Jerusalem, in particular, is a deeply sensitive and central issue to all parties….

å?We believe that the comprehensive peace must be the goal of all political efforts from within and outside the region. Renewed efforts must be made to reach a peaceful settlement between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon based on the land-for-peace formula and on UN resolutions 242, 338, and 425. This settlement must include maximum mutual security for the parties as well as normal relations between them. Comprehensive peace should allow for a region free from weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, a Middle East in which economic potentials are harnessed for the prosperity of its inhabitants, and steps should be taken to achieve these goals.

å?We urge all forces in the Middle East to join hands to rebuild a region free from arms races and free from strife and poverty. In this noble endeavor, we will seize every opportunity, knock on every door, lobby every government, and attempt to spread our vision to serve the interests of present and future generations….

Amos Elon
Jerusalem, Israel

To the Editors:

It is significant and sad that Israelis and, in fact, many others had to wait through nine years of negotiations for a real insight into the Syrian discourse on the peace process with Israel. Sadik al-Azm’s New York Review of Books essay is intriguing and important in many ways, but its most valuable contribution comes from the light it sheds on the depth and complexity of the Syrian debate on peace with Israel.

Of course, those of us who met and negotiated with Syria’s official representatives heard at length about Syrian public opinion, its reservations regarding reconciliation with the enemy and the limitations it imposed even on a powerful ruler like Hafiz al-Asad. We know that public opinion and constituencies exist in authoritarian regimes but we knew also that invoking them as a constraint was a familiar negotiating technique for democratic and authoritarian governments alike.

But how does one gauge the public mood in a country that has no free media? As Sadik al-Azm himself tells us: “These intense discussions are not open public debates aired [by the media]…but are highly charged, comprehensive, and persuasive exchanges whose main vehicles are the time-honored methods of oral transmission…. This is Damascus’s rumor mill and the people’s free press at one and the same time.”

Occasional glimpses into that debate have been offered to outsiders but it was not until Syria’s Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara addressed the Arab Writers’ Union last February that the constraints affecting Asad’s regime became fully apparent. It was a complex speech, dotted by harsh statements but first and foremost an apologetic presentation explaining to a critical audience why Asad’s Syria was forced to abandon her erstwhile principles and come to terms with the enemy.

The speech and its tenor were also manifestations of the waning of Asad’s regime. In years past, he alone would have given such a programmatic speech, his foreign minister serving as a mere technician. Asad still wielded ultimate control but he became less visible and less present and very much preoccupied with guaranteeing the succession to his son. The failure of President Clinton’s last-ditch effort to galvanize the Israeli-Syrian negotiations in his last meeting with Asad in Geneva has yet to be fully explained, but from several authoritative accounts it emerges that Asad’s foreign minister had either gone beyond his mandate in the earlier sessions or was subsequently overruled by his boss.

Be that as it may, the Israeli-Syrian negotiation is the victim inter alia of bad pacing and bad timing. We are told by Sadik al-Azm that the mainstream of Syrian society has “come to take Israel for granted, to assume that a peace will come as a matter of course….”We know that successive Israeli prime ministers have since 1993 conveyed to Damascus their willingness to withdraw from the Golan in return for a satisfactory full peace with Syria. This should have led to a deal and yet has not. Perhaps most exasperating has been the failure to reach the deal during the last year when a single-minded Israeli prime minister had focused his policies on the quest for a Syrian deal but encountered the waning regime of Hafiz al-Asad.

We do not know what impact Asad’s death will have on the prospect of a renewed negotiation with Israel. It is quite possible, though not inevitable, that the succession, installation, and consolidation of a new regime will postpone the renewal of the negotiations. But even if this is the case, the foundations for a prospective agreement remain in place and the negotiation is bound to be revived at some point.

When it does, it is important that one issue that is badly misconstrued by Sadik al-Azm be reconsidered by the Syrian side. Al-Azm fully endorses the Asad regime’s utter refusal to engage Israeli public opinion by investing in what we call “public diplomacy.” It is viewed in Damascus as yet another capricious demand. But it is not. It is reflective of Israel’s collective psyche. Thoughtful Syrians like Asad should ask themselves what prompted many Israeli doves, most notably the writer Amos Oz, to come out against the idea of an agreement with a sour-faced Syria. Without addressing it, Syria, dealing with Barak or any other Israeli prime minister, will not have a viable partner in Jerusalem. Itmar Rabinovitch
President
Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv, Israel

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