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The View from Damascus

All in all, the dominant temper of the debate in Damascus inclined toward saying that whatever our government does or does not do with Israel is its own official and political business, and that we, as ordinary people and citizens, will and should resist this normalization of relations any way we can, whenever and wherever it touches our lives. Still, there were many varied positions and shades of opinion expressed on this matter, plus some carefully stated dissent from the mainstream view.

Needless to say, the deep rejectionists stuck to their guns, insisting on seeing the conflict with Israel as a deferred existential struggle instead of the standard fight over land, borders, occupation, resources, and sovereignty that it had become. Another faction accepted the principle of a peaceful settlement but rejected the type of accord reached at Oslo, arguing that “full peace” with Israel is possible only after “full withdrawal” from all occupied Arab territories is achieved (including East Jerusalem), and not just from the Golan Heights. A third position advocated postponing all forms of normalization until the occupied territories were returned and the Palestinian people were satisfied, particularly diaspora Palestinians. In practice, “normalization” remains another bargaining chip on the Syrian-Israeli-American negotiating table.

Among the most prominent of Syria’s open but cautious dissenters were Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most senior and eminent poets and public intellectuals; Hani El-Raheb, the famous Kuwait University-based novelist; and Dr. Hisham Dajani, the well-known Palestinian-Syrian journalist, critic, and political commentator. The worst that happened to these dissenters was that they were expelled from Syria’s official Arab Writers Union. The expulsions led in their turn to another public controversy over questions of due process, the legality of the act itself, and whether the job of the union is to protect its members and their rights or to punish them for expressing unorthodox views. The new debate heated up greatly when Syria’s foremost dramatist and playwright, Sa’dallah Wannous, denounced the expulsions in no uncertain terms and submitted his resignation—by wire—from the union in protest, all while he was on his deathbed. At the same moment, one of Syria’s most senior and prominent novelists and short story writers, Hanna Mineh, condemned the expulsions in no less uncertain terms and announced his immediate withdrawal from the Writers Union as well.

3.

If I were to try to capture in one sentence Syria’s mood concerning peace with Israel during the period extending from the Madrid Conference to the election of Netanyahu as prime minister in May 1996, I would say it was one of stoic resignation before a necessary evil. Underlying this mood was a range of powerful emotions: a deep sense of Arab defeat, resentment, grudging acceptance, principled defiance, dissatisfaction with what is, humiliation, submission to the force of circumstance, disillusionment, endurance, fatalism, and certainly pride in having been Israel’s (and Zionism’s) most entrenched and implacable enemy. Naturally, all these pent-up passions continue to influence, in subtle and not so subtle ways, Syria’s approach to the peace process, the way it negotiates, its attitude in the actual peace talks, its seeming intransigence, extreme caution, skepticism, reluctance, literalness, formalism, reclusiveness, etc.

What adds insult to injury, in Syrian eyes, is Israel’s repeated insistence, privately and publicly, that Syria help Israeli leaders convince their own public that peace is not only at hand but also good for them. Or, as Syria’s chief negotiator and ambassador to Washington, Walid Mu’allem, once complained in an interview,

This, actually, was a problem with the negotiations all along. We always felt that the Israelis wanted Syria to do their work for them. They wanted us to convince their public that peace was in their interests. We prepared our public for peace with Israel. Many things changed in our media. But they wanted us to speak in the Israeli media to prepare Israeli public opinion…. We considered such insistence a negative sign: When you do not prepare your own public for peace with your neighbor, this means you do not really have the intention to make peace.

No less objectionable were policies like Israel’s insistence (particularly Rabin’s) on a protracted Golan deal designed to “test” Syria’s good intentions and behavior by trading several partial and limited withdrawals in return for heavy doses of “normalization” over a period of up to five years. This is where the summarily rejected “Majdal Shams First” proposal had its origins (Majdal Shams is the largest village on the Golan Heights). Add to that Israel’s widely trumpeted plans, particularly under Peres, for plunging immediately into grandiose economic ventures and all sorts of joint projects with Syria for the purpose of making a whole new Middle East for the Arabs.

According to some reports, the Israelis, at one of the last sessions of the Maryland negotiations, went so far as to submit a score of projects for integrating the Syrian and Israeli economies. Not to be dismissed either is general Syrian and Arab resentment of the insistent demand not only that the Arabs make peace with Israel, but that they also make it cheerfully and jubilantly.

In contrast, the images and analogies that kept crowding my mind during this period mainly recalled scenes from Renaissance politics. Here we have a sturdy and independent- minded bride and a robust, defiant bridegroom each belonging to a powerful, long-feuding and warring dynasty, family, or tribe. The two candidates despise, cannot stand, each other; still, for the sake of higher collective interests, for what the French call raison d’état, they have to go through a marriage ceremony regardless and in spite of their personal feelings and different aspirations. After the ceremony, the couple may stay together in some formal sense for the sake of appearances while each goes his or her own separate way, or they may come to accommodate each other—but then who knows? It is the Romeo and Juliet story in reverse.

During the period before Netanyahu was elected, President Asad acquired additional Arab prestige and popular admiration as a result of the dignified and sober manner in which he conducted Syria’s negotiations with Israel and the United States. By resolutely refusing to cave in to the Israeli agenda, he was widely seen as a real negotiator and player instead of another Arab pawn. It only added to his stature that he was doing all this against the severe odds of a very adverse Arab, regional, and international balance of power.

At the same time, all Damascus knew that the Israelis were pushing hard, with American support, for a “declaration of principles” with Syria, and a possible summit meeting with Asad to be followed by the long and torturous path of detailed negotiations over all the difficult issues which we all know bedevil the course of both countries toward a peace treaty. But people in Damascus knew as well that Asad’s way is first to negotiate and agree on each and every one of the contested issues and details; then to go forward with the high declaration of principles, the summit meeting, the ceremonies and celebrations that follow as the crowning achievement of the entire operation. It certainly seemed in Damascus that President Asad drew all the right lessons from Sadat’s spectacular experiences with the formula “declaration of principles now, negotiations later.” Sadat went to his grave unmourned by his own people and in a manner that led the Arab world’s most famous journalist, the Egyptian political analyst and commentator Mohamad Hasanein Haykal, to declare in his book Autumn of Fury that Sadat’s death caused a huge sigh of relief throughout Egypt.

The other living lessons and examples come from the innumerable humiliations, indignities, snubs, and even insults to which various Israeli leaders subjected Yasser Arafat almost immediately after the Palestinian-Israeli “declaration of principles” and the famous handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993. Add to that the sorry sight of Arafat having to put up with all those renegotiations of accords, protocols, promises, and commitments that had already been painfully negotiated, agreed to, duly signed, and then guaranteed by the United States.

4.

In all spheres of society—official, popular, diplomatic—Damascus received the news of Netanyahu’s election as prime minister of Israel at the end of May 1996 with a mix of disappointment and relief. Smart intellectuals went about town saying things like: Look at what our cousins are doing down south, they kill Rabin, reject Peres, elect Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, and then swear they want nothing but peace with us. (“Our cousins” is the benign way of referring to the Israelis when educated Damascenes discuss them around the kitchen table.)

I said a mix of disappointment and relief: disappointment, because the entire normalization controversy was predicated on the resigned assumption that a peace agreement—whatever its shortcomings and humiliations—was about to be concluded. And since all sights were set on the arrival of this Godot, a feeling of suspense, expectation, and intrigue naturally crept over everyone; but when nothing happened, a measure of disappointment became inevitable. Relief, because the tough decisions, painful concessions, and embarrassing reversals had all been postponed for the time being and through no fault of Syria. The change of mind—whatever its causes—occurred on the other side. It was Israel and not Syria that withdrew from the Wye negotiations in Maryland on March 3, 1996. In fact, for the first time no one was blaming Syria—either locally, regionally, or internationally—for willfully obstructing the peace negotiations or for expressly seeking to subvert them. I can also add that I had never seen the Western diplomats in Damascus more frankly and vehemently critical of Israel than during Netanyahu’s tenure.

The advent of Netanyahu and his policies was quickly perceived in Damascus not only as a throwback to the obstructionist policies and tactics of the Shamir government, but also as a reversion to the hard-line “peace for peace” idea in place of the “peace for land” principle that had been underlying the negotiations so far. Syria’s deep rejectionists found much relief and satisfaction in Netanyahu’s declarations, such as his famous three no’s: to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, to an independent Palestinian state, and to a compromise on East Jerusalem. His so-called “subarrangements” with Syria aimed at the gradual normalization of relations between the two countries without any withdrawals from the Golan. The new guidelines submitted to the Knesset affirmed that his government “views the Golan Heights as essential to the security of the state” and that “retaining Israeli sovereignty over the Golan will be the basis for any arrangements with Syria.”

Netanyahu’s “Lebanon First” initiative was expressly designed to extricate the Israeli army from southern Lebanon without addressing Syria’s territorial demands for the Golan. Understandably, the heartened deep rejectionists said, “We told you so,” reemphasizing that when the chips are down Israel will always revert to type as a settler-colonial nation and an aggressive warrior state and society, far more interested in expansion, domination, territory, settlement, and resources than in peace.

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