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The View from Damascus

As seen from Damascus, though this trajectory may not be indicative of a consequential shift in the region’s balance of power, it certainly raises serious questions about the limits of what the raw power of Israel can achieve and sustain and about the possibility that Israel may have reached the outer limits of its inner capabilities vis-à-vis a defeated but still restive and defiant surrounding Arab world.

(5) Golan or no Golan, the big time bomb threatening all future relations, settlements, and agreements with the new neighbor remains the Palestinians themselves, particularly “Israel’s Palestinians,” regardless of whether they happen to be Israeli citizens or belong to a nominally sovereign Palestinian state. In this connection, there is at present a kind of broad consensus among the intelligentsia in Damascus over the following two points: (1) that the issues of final status to be negotiated with PLO Chairman Arafat—such as Jerusalem, the settlements, the refugees—will really lead nowhere because Israel will concede little of substance on these matters and the best that Arafat can hope for is the implementation of the renegotiated and remodified Wye River agreement, made in October 1998, but not much more; and (2) that the Oslo arrangements on the ground, coupled with Israeli settlement policies, can only lead to a “Palestine” made up of a number of enclaves encircled by Israeli security forces and subjected to a system of informal apartheid. Under such circumstances, the Israelis will enjoy democracy while the Palestinians will have to struggle with and against apartheid. Thus when a prominent Palestinian poet and public intellectual told me not too long ago, “if the Israelis give us citizenship, we will accept to be their blacks,” he had in the back of his mind images from Jean Genet’s Les Nègres and Frantz Fanon’s Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, where the blacks eventually turn the tables. Not too surprisingly, therefore, the discussions of the Damascus intelligentsia these days seem full of analogies with South Africa and the South African experience, old and new.


Syria certainly has its deep rejectionists—people who refuse to accept the existence of Israel. To the best of my judgment they are in a minority now, but they are there. Their position has its own deep emotional appeal, and under the right circumstances they could easily rebound, strike a chord with the mainstream of opinion, and become a decisive force in Syrian culture and politics. Prominent among them are members of the Islamist currents in civil society who now rally around a Muslim version of the doctrine of Palestine as the Promised Land. The doctrine teaches that Palestine is a Waqf—a place divinely consecrated for religious purposes—which the Almighty has reserved permanently and eternally for the Muslim Umma, the religious community. By this logic, in other words, Palestine is an endowment made by God to the Muslim Umma, and like all such endowments it may not be transferred, tampered with, or squandered by any one person, government, or generation.

The other type of deep rejectionists are hard-line nationalists who rally around a watered-down and secularized version of the Waqf doctrine. They argue that Palestine does not belong to our generation only—or to any one Arab generation, for that matter—so we cannot proceed to sign it away both de facto and de jure. Palestine belongs to the entire Arab and/or Syrian nation and to all its generations past, present, and future. This means that the best course of action at present is to keep the conflict going, leaving open the future and its manifold possibilities. This will secure for new and unborn generations the chance to continue the just fight against the usurper with, it is hoped, an improved balance of power, both locally and internationally. A version of this argument surfaced at the Geneva Syrian- American summit conference this March. When President Clinton tried to impress on President Asad that “the window of opportunity was narrowing,” the Syrian president was reported to have replied by referring to Syria’s readiness to wait “for future generations to retrieve the whole land.”

Consider as well that, beyond Syria’s governmental discourses and informal social debates, the country went through a relatively smooth period between the opening of the Madrid Conference in October 1991 and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister in May 1996. For example, (a) Syria was the only country to emerge unscathed from the Gulf crisis and war thanks to the deft and far-sighted way in which President Asad dealt with that perilous situation. (b) The country reaped tangible material benefits in the aftermath of the war and even experienced an economic boom of sorts. (c) President Asad was being assiduously courted by the Americans, while Syrian-American relations were being reconstituted and ties with the European Union became closer than ever. (d) With Syrian-Israeli negotiations in Washington and then Maryland progressing slowly, Syria felt at its most confident and relaxed. It seemed to discerning Damascenes that maybe the Israelis had come to realize that concluding a peace agreement with a self-confident and reassured Syria would be in their best interest, knowing full well that if anyone could make such a deal stick in a place like Syria, it would be Asad at the peak of his prestige, power, and control.

It was during this phase that President Asad announced to the world in 1993 his “full peace for full withdrawal” formula for finally resolving the conflict with Israel. He made this statement in a long interview granted to the British journalist and expert on Syrian politics Patrick Seale, which was published in full in the London-based Arabic weekly Al-Wasat on May 10, 1993, and in the form of a long Op-Ed piece by Seale himself in The New York Times on May 11, 1993. It was clear to people in Damascus at the time that through this interview President Asad meant, first, to communicate to the widest possible public something about the arguments, hagglings, offers, and counteroffers going on in the negotiations conducted behind closed doors in Washington, and, second, to take up openly Prime Minister Rabin’s earlier suggestion that the depth of the Israeli withdrawal will be proportional to the depth of the peace with Syria, a formulation that brought the total evacuation of the Golan Heights within the realm of the negotiable.

The Israeli reaction came a week later in the form of an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on May 19, 1993, by Itamar Rabinovich, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria. Rabinovich welcomed Asad’s interview as “one of the most important developments of the round of Arab-Israeli peace talks that ended last Thursday” and as “the single most impressive act yet of public diplomacy performed by Syria’s President in the context of the peace talks with Israel.” Still, Rabinovich failed to endorse the “full peace for full withdrawal” formula. He talked both of “the prospect of a breakthrough in these negotiations in the coming months” and of “the lingering threat of a stalemate.”

Politically informed people in Damascus did not fail to note that the “full peace for full withdrawal” recipe departed for the first time from the often repeated Syrian position of “establishing a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the region.” Many suspected that while a “comprehensive, just, and lasting peace” meant the return of all Israeli-occupied Arab territories and the settlement of all outstanding Arab issues with Israel (including Jerusalem, Palestinian national rights, the refugees, etc.), a “full peace for full withdrawal” applied to the Golan Heights only.

We know now that at a certain stage in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations the formula of “full peace for full withdrawal” replaced in effect all other formulations, including the “comprehensive, just, and lasting peace” recipe. In this shift lurked what in the idiom of the US State Department is known as a “constructive ambiguity”; for “comprehensive peace” tends to link the Syrian-Israeli talks to the Palestinian and other negotiating tracks while the “full peace for full withdrawal” formula tends to sever all such links and ties in favor of a separate settlement that “stands on its two feet,” as the Israelis put it.

This short-lived “constructive ambiguity” showed President Asad trying to the last minute to maintain some coherence and practical coordination among the different Arab-Israeli negotiating tracks, while at the same time offering Israel a full contractual peace in return for the Golan Heights. The revelation in the summer of 1993 of the Oslo agreements between Israel and the PLO effectively shattered this useful ambiguity; the subsequent Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994 rendered it totally irrelevant. “Comprehensive peace” with Israel was no longer sought by Syria’s neighbors themselves.

At about this same time, a wide-ranging and noisy public debate erupted in Syria over the meaning, implications, and applications for Syrian society itself of “full peace with Israel.” This is now known as the “normalization” debate—i.e., the normalization of relations with the ex-enemy. This was a controversy neither instigated nor sponsored nor controlled by the regime. The authorities followed it carefully, particularly to make sure it did not directly attack or subvert the very idea of “full peace for full withdrawal.” The Syrian press and television were neither the sole nor the primary vehicles for this debate, although they were widely used by the contributors and contestants; so were various Palestinian publications appearing in Syria and Lebanon, the much freer and varied Lebanese press, and many of the Gulf newspapers, magazines, and television stations, in addition to the Arab press in London and Paris. The Egyptian press joined in the controversy as well, particularly the opposition papers.

It was clear to all participants in the debate that the “full peace for full withdrawal” formula had, through no fault of Syria’s, disengaged the Syrian negotiations from the fate of Arafat, the PLO, the West Bank, and the Palestinians in general. In Damascus people absorbed this message in sorrow rather than in anger, sorrow at the evaporation of the last vestiges of Arab solidarity and cooperation in the negotiations with Israel, plus a relieved conscience that it was not Syria that had broken ranks with its Arab partners.

The normalization controversy focused sharply, critically, and passionately on such issues as: What does full peace with Israel mean beyond agreements, treaties, arrangements, and protocols between governments? What does the normalization of relations with Israel imply for Syrian society? Do we, as Syrian citizens from all walks of life, want such a normalization of relations, regardless of what our rulers do at the top and at the official level? If we reject this normalization, how do we go about opposing it? How do we go about resisting our rulers’ expected attempts to impose it on us?

Various efforts were made to form action committees and united fronts for the sole purpose of opposing the normalization of relations with Israel at the personal, social, commercial, cultural, touristic, and scientific levels. The entire debate was conducted on the two assumptions that a peace treaty with Israel had become inevitable (and sooner rather than later), and that Syrian society had better think quickly about how to deal with the treaty’s implications and consequences for the country.

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