Hafez Al-Assad
Hafez Al-Assad; drawing by David Levine


Is Syria as Syria, and not just as a government and regime, ready for peace with Israel at the present time? The answer has to be a cautious and qualified yes.

Consider, first, the major sea change in official Syrian statements about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general since the convening of the Madrid peace conference in October 1991. It is a sea change that has continued unabated in spite of the many hurdles and adverse developments that would have normally reversed it along the way, under less auspicious circumstances. This striking shift reached its climax in the wholly unprecedented kind words spoken by President Asad in praise of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May 1999, words expressly intended for local Arab as well as worldwide publication and circulation.

Well before that, President Asad had announced to the world, during his summit meeting with President Clinton in Geneva in January 1994, that Syria had taken a firm “strategic decision” in favor of peace with Israel and its readiness for “normal and peaceful relations” with the ex-enemy. In August 1997, these same assurances were again spelled out by Asad while he was addressing a delegation of Arab Israelis invited to Damascus in a first attempt to reach out to a sympathetic segment of the Israeli public.

At a less august level, Syria’s energetic minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Farouq al-Shara’, had already violated several strict Syrian political taboos in the autumn of 1994 by accepting questions from Israeli journalists at press conferences in London and Washington and then by agreeing to meet with prominent Jewish and Zionist leaders in the American capital. He even granted a lengthy interview to a major news program on Israeli television, broadcast October 7, 1994.

These manifest changes did not remain confined to the formal utterances of high officials, governmental communiqués, and press releases, but extended with equal thoroughness to the Syrian media, all government-owned and tightly controlled. It has internal significance when the prefabricated, wooden, repetitive, and at times surreal language used by the Syrian media suddenly starts referring routinely and matter-of-factly to Israel, Israeli leaders, officials, etc., by their proper names, formal titles, actual functions and positions—instead of following the hackneyed, but in Arabic rhetorically quite flowery, practice of speaking about “the so-called prime minister of the Zionist entity.”

Consider, second, the intense debates that have been raging inside Syrian society since the Madrid Conference on Israel over the “peace process” and the nature of our future relationship with the neighbor, as well as the fears, anxieties, disappointments, failures, and expectations aroused by a coming, seemingly willy-nilly, deal with the old enemy. Here, a word of warning is very much in order against possible misunderstandings. These intense discussions are not open public debates aired on radio and television or conducted through newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, etc., but are highly charged, comprehensive, and pervasive exchanges whose main vehicles are the time-honored methods of oral transmission, through conversations among people who are within earshot of each other. This is Damascus’s rumor mill and the people’s free press at one and the same time.

Through a series of informal, private, and overlapping circles, people in Damascus discuss and rediscuss, hash and rehash, spoof and respoof the affairs of the world big and small, internal and external, Pan-Arab and local, regional and international. Through these personalized, highly efficient, and always active informal networks and face-to-face encounters, an informal public opinion is created and crystalizes on the issues, anomalies, and problems of the day. The result is a public opinion which the power centers take into account without ever formally admitting it.

For example, one reason why Damascenes invest so much time visiting one another is to stay informed. This is also why, in a city like Damascus, gossip is hardly ever mere gossip and secrets hardly ever remain secret for any length of time. Thus, when some Damascene old-timers checked the information of their rumor mill against Henry Kissinger’s memoirs about his dealings with President Asad after the October war of 1973 with Israel, they were both proud of and pleasantly surprised by how well informed Damascus was, at the time, about those ongoing secret proceedings.

What is particularly interesting about these discussions is that they have come to take Israel for granted, to assume that a peace will come as a matter of course. They argue over issues and matters such as: Is Syria really ready for the coming contests, rivalries, and dealings with Israel? In view of Israel’s economic superiority, high technology, advanced planning techniques, and world-class managerial skills, will it not quickly dominate the area, turning itself into a kind of regional core country around which a far less developed Arab periphery revolves? What kind of impact will the peace have on Syria’s internal economic life, political arrangements, military posture, Arab nationalist credentials, etc.? How will Syria’s projected settlement with Israel interact with the pressing high tide of globalization, the newly emerging Middle Eastern order, and the partnership with the countries on the other side of the Mediterranean as outlined in the Barcelona agreements and commitments? What are the most urgent reforms that Syria needs to make now to feel anywhere near prepared for the post-peace phase?


Naturally, these questions and issues are of the greatest concern to the merchant classes in general, who are the backbone of Syria’s civil society, and in particular to people prominent in commerce, agriculture, and industry. The currently dominant opinion in these milieus is that Syria is definitely unprepared for the challenges attendant on the approaching peace on account of its highly shackled economy, absentee banking, heavily regulated commerce, and constricted industrial activity. The emblems of these shackles can be seen in such local characteristics as martial law, the backward command-operated public sector of the economy, the maze of unending state restrictions, bureaucratic obstructions, erratic rules, and arbitrary regulations.

Hence the mixed mood of fear, apprehension, opportunism, and bravado prevalent in these circles. Some people within them certainly argue that once freed from these artificial constraints, the merchants and entrepreneurs of Syria—who, as they boast, have been in business for thousands of years—will prove to the world that they are up to the coming challenges on all fronts and will show the Israelis, in particular, that they are their match and equal if not more than that. Such an economically revived Syria—so the argument goes—would quickly surge forward, and be able to stand up to a currently superior Israel and more than adequately confront its threats and challenges by means other than the ones tried so far without marked success.

Another view suggests that Israel, after all, may not be that interested economically in the Arab countries when it considers that its own economy, including its production processes, goods and services, etc., are wholly compatible with the most advanced economies of the world. Those who question this position point out that Israeli capitalism is so agile and so adaptable that it would be foolish of the Arabs not to expect the new economic partner to quickly manufacture the kinds of products and develop the sorts of enterprises that will find him profitable markets in the Arab world. Underlying this last position is the fear not so much of a strong Israel at peace with its weaker neighbors as of the emergence of a dynamic core country in the region flexing its superior economic, military, and strategic muscles (under American protection) to restructure the Arab Middle East in accordance with its own long-term vital interests.

In addition to these issues, members of the intelligentsia also debate bigger questions pertaining to Israel’s long-term vulnerabilities, inherent weaknesses, future possibilities, etc., vis-à-vis the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular. For example:

(1)In spite of possessing atomic bombs, in spite of undisputed military superiority, in spite of powerful American support and protection, during the Gulf War Israel seemed scared almost out of its wits by forty badly aimed Iraqi Scud missiles, which created near panic in a militarily very well prepared and hardened population. Damascus intellectuals did not fail to compare and contrast this curious situation with the fact that no scares or panics of any sort were registered and/or reported in West Beirut during the three-month-long Israeli siege of the city in the summer of 1982. This, in spite of (a) the prolonged, accurate, and finely synchronized Israeli bombing of the capital from air, land, and sea at one and the same time, and (b) the unavailability to the people of West Beirut of any help but their wits and survival instincts, as opposed to the shelters, sealed rooms, necessary provisions, prompt first aid, efficient medical services, etc., available to Israelis during the Gulf War. A friend ironically asked of Israelis scared by the Scud missiles: “Are they a country or a settlement?” At a later point, it did not escape his attention that upon the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, the spontaneous reaction of Mrs. Leah Rabin was to declare that she was packing and leaving, a reaction for which she later apologized profusely to the Israeli public.

(2)Given Israel’s pioneering spirit, and its craving for more land, more settlements, more water, more resources, will we have in the longer run a formula for peace or for another hundred years of unspecified kinds of strife and violent conflict?

(3)No matter how many peace treaties the Arabs sign with Israel, no matter how many accords they reach with it, no matter how many assurances and guarantees they give it, will any of this really alleviate, calm, and/ or dissipate Israel’s profound existential angst about its place, future, and identity in an Arab region, an angst complicated by a heritage of unspeakable persecution, by its current domination of the region, and by its practice of manipulation, for example its cynical and dismissive treatment of Arafat and the Palestinians after the supposed Oslo reconciliation?


(4) Below the surface, what is the situation now of the “historical” balance of power between Israel and the Arabs? Is it not noteworthy, ask Damascus intellectuals, that while the June 1967 war was crushingly won by Israel in six days, the October 1973 war, initiated by Egypt and Syria, shook the country to its very foundations? Then, the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and short occupation of Beirut ended in an unmitigated disaster for the invader on all fronts, even in Israeli eyes. Not too long after, the Palestinian intifada finally demonstrated to all concerned the unsustainability of the Israeli status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Again, Operation Grapes of Wrath, ordered in April 1996 by Prime Minister Shimon Peres against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, not only failed to translate Israel’s overwhelming military superiority into a swift, effective, and neat punitive military operation on the ground, but instead backfired, leading to (a) what is now generally known as the Kafar Qana massacre where one hundred civilians (mostly village women and children) perished in the Israeli shelling while taking refuge at a United Nations facility nearby, (b) acute international embarrassment for Israel over this disaster and severe Arab condemnations of it, (c) a hastily arranged cease-fire that still makes Israel’s military feel uncomfortable, (d) the ouster of Peres and the Labor Party from power by the Israeli electorate a few weeks later, and (e) Israel finally coming around to convincing itself of the wisdom of unilaterally withdrawing from southern Lebanon as soon as possible.

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.

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.


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.


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.

At the same time, there was concern in Syrian civil society—particularly among the intelligentsia—that on account of the new Israeli intransigence the Syrian regime would also revert to its pre-Madrid rhetoric, positions, and practices. But none of these fears materialized. On the contrary, the Syrian government shrewdly put the Netanyahu interregnum to good use, quickly assuming the political-moral high ground by constantly harping on the themes that (a) it was not Syria but Israel that had second thoughts, if not a change of heart and mind, about the peace process, (b) it was not Syria but Israel that withdrew from the Maryland negotiations, and (c) it is Syria, not Israel, that is ready right now to resume the peace talks from where they broke off. Locally, no significant changes were noted in either the official line or the media accounts, even those meant for purely internal consumption. Clearly, Syria’s policies during this period were skillfully designed to appeal to the gallery and play credibly to the jury, knowing well that both the gallery and the jury, in this instance, were located in the United States, the European Union, and the West generally.

At the start of the Netanyahu interregnum, Syria stood accused of having missed two rare opportunities to conclude a peace treaty with Israel and retrieve the Golan Heights. The first opportunity supposedly came up just before Prime Minister Rabin made his momentous decision to pursue the highly secret breakthrough arrived at in Oslo with the Palestinians, instead of continuing his push on the Syrian negotiating track. The second opportunity presented itself, according to this logic, after Rabin’s assassination, when Prime Minister Peres decided to call for early general elections instead of serving the rest of Rabin’s term of office. The accusation goes on to hold President Asad’s excessive caution, suspiciousness, and procrastination responsible for the loss of these two opportunities. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said as much in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in late October 1997, while Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich expounded these charges in his fine book The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations.1 Naturally, the Damascus rumor mill took up the accusations as well, but without arriving at any serious conclusions or informed deductions at the time.

According to Rabinovich’s account, Rabin on August 3, 1993, sent a message to Asad, via Warren Christopher and Dennis Ross, exploring the possibilities of an agreement for “a very specific peace deal” embracing both Syria and Lebanon. The American mediators returned from Damascus with a response “which they regarded as positive, but which Rabin found disappointing.” This led him to immediately pursue instead the already prepared breakthrough on the still-secret Oslo track.

Now we know that the message sent by Rabin to Asad was a proposal for the Israelis to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights in return for Syria’s fully meeting Israel’s security and normalization conditions. We also know that the Asad response, which the American mediators regarded as positive but which Rabin found disappointing, sought to clarify whether the proposed withdrawal would extend to the June 4, 1967, line or stop at the international border of 1923 as demarcated by the French and British mandatory authorities in Syria and Palestine respectively. A withdrawal to the 1923 frontier would prevent Syria from returning to its earlier positions on the northeastern corner of Lake Tiberias and from retrieving the land that has now become the hot springs resort known as al-Hemma, originally an old Palestinian Arab village of that name. According to some observers and analysts of the peace process, the American sponsors of these indirect negotiations missed a fine opportunity for an imminent breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli track by failing to explore further with the Israeli side the clarification sought by President Asad at the time.

Upon assuming the premiership, continues Rabinovich, Peres, for his part, explored the possibility of reviving the Syrian track through a number of extraordinary economic proposals and dramatic political measures (an early summit meeting with President Asad, for instance) designed to help his election prospects when the time for the campaign came. However, according to Rabinovich, “Asad’s response was cautiously positive but very guarded” and in the end he failed to “meet Peres’ terms” and to provide him “with real prospects of a good agreement in good time.” As a result Peres decided not only to call early elections, but also to authorize Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon.

A reply to these accusations was made by Patrick Seale, President Asad’s biographer, in the Journal of Palestine Studies.2 He stressed three main points: first, that Rabin responded to Asad’s offer of full peace for full withdrawal by making the withdrawal part of the offer contingent on such unacceptable preconditions (including the “restructuring,” as Seale put it, of the Syrian armed forces) that he, in effect, subverted the “peace opportunity.” Second, that the supposed overture that Rabin made toward Asad just before committing himself to the secret Oslo breakthrough was no more than a political ruse meant to cover Rabin’s clear preference for proceeding on the Palestinian track. And third, that Prime Minister Peres had provoked the Islamist suicide bombings—which, he said, compelled him to suspend the Maryland peace talks and call for early elections—when he authorized the assassination of Yahya ‘Ayyash (known as “the Engineer”), in spite of the fact that this Hamas operative had suspended his activities a year earlier.

A more comprehensive answer was put forward by the Syrian ambassador Walid Mu’allem in a long and authoritative interview, again published in the Journal of Palestine Studies.3 Ambassador Mu’allem rebuts the charge of a missed opportunity by arguing that the ongoing negotiations over such major Israeli concerns as security arrangements, normalization, the timetable for completing the deal, etc., could only have started in earnest, in the first place, after an agreement had been reached by the two sides on the question of full withdrawal, both military and civilian. Or, as Rabinovich wrote in his account, the Syrians, from the start of the negotiations in summer of 1992 until August 1993, would not budge until they heard the two words “full withdrawal.” But then the Syrian side, Mu’allem continues, was completely surprised by the announcement of the Oslo accords as well as by the sudden developments that followed on the Israeli-Jordanian track, leading rapidly to a peace treaty between the two countries.

Concerning the second “missed” opportunity, Mu’allem holds that Peres’s call for early elections and his suspension of the Maryland peace talks took Syria by surprise no less than the Oslo agreement. He attributes both decisions to internal Israeli pressures and party concerns rather than to any peace opportunities that suddenly had become available for the taking. In support of his position, Mu’allem refers to Israeli sources that accused Peres himself of missing the golden opportunity for making peace with Syria. The reference here is primarily to the accurate revelations about the details of Rabin’s negotiations with Syria made by Orly Azulay-Katz in his biography of Shimon Peres, The Man Who Could Not Win.4 Mu’allem also alludes to a much-publicized television interview given by the chief negotiator under Peres, Mr. Uri Savir, in which he (a) admitted that much was achieved at the Maryland negotiations, (b) confirmed that the two sides were indeed on the verge of reaching an agreement when Peres withdrew from the talks, but (c) made no mention of any opportunities, missed or unmissed. Add to that the story published by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv under the headline “This is How We Missed the Peace with Syria” (December 12, 1997), which blamed Peres for the lost opportunity on the basis of information from sources close to Savir himself.

By then, Damascus had guessed that there were no missed opportunities at all, but the usual power plays, tactical maneuvers, and deliberate efforts by both sides to further as much as possible their explicit and implicit agendas. For example, Rabin’s last-minute Syrian move before openly embracing the Oslo option—i.e., his August 3 overture referred to above—was expressly designed to offer President Asad a contract that he could only refuse, i.e., one that confronted him with a fait accompli that Rabin knew he would either diplomatically or bluntly reject. The offer came to Syria more as a take-it-or-leave-it package deal than as a new negotiating gambit. Accepting the package would have put Asad in Arafat’s present shoes, turning him into the breaker of Arab ranks, the abandoner of his negotiating partners, in addition to making a mockery of all his efforts to maintain a minimally coherent “Eastern Arab Front”—including Jordan, Lebanon, and the PLO—while dealing with Israel.

Similarly, the short-lived Peres approach came overloaded with demands and conditions that Syria had either to meet swiftly or face the delays and risks attendant on early elections in Israel. Among these demands were:

(1)An almost immediate summit meeting with President Asad to take place in Jerusalem, the first preference, in Damascus, the second, or in Washington as third best. Actually, Peres not only made the continuation of serious negotiations on the Syrian track contingent on such a meeting, but went so far as to regard the summit as “the litmus test” (to use Rabinovich’s characterization) for any peace agreement with Syria.

(2)That the Golan Heights be turned into a “free economic zone” and/or a “zone of economic development,” as a part of the new Middle East unilaterally envisioned by Peres himself.

(3)The initiation and development of economic enterprises and shared interests in the areas around the border to be designated between the two countries, all as a measure of the “quality and depth” of the coming peace.

(4)The creation of a regional security organization under American supervision and tutelage to be launched under the title “the Clinton Plan.”

In Damascene eyes, Peres’s over-ambitious approach could go nowhere because it neglected the simple fact that Syria is also at all levels a highly security-conscious state. Syria naturally finds it much easier to digest a security-based peace agreement that it can understand and cope with than one overburdened by grandiose economic schemes and ventures that it is ill-equipped to handle. Hence the belief in Damascus that Israel was successfully fragmenting the Arab negotiating front, consolidating its peace agreements on the other tracks, and leaving an isolated Syria to the very end of the negotiating process.

I should add that the image of President Asad as a self-defeatingly cautious, reluctant, suspicious, procrastinating, formalistic leader, ruler, politician, and player can be quite misleading. In Damascus, there is no question that these qualities are all highly prized when brought to bear on Syria’s dealings with Israel and the United States. But people in Damascus also know that at critical moments, Asad has shown himself politically capable of bold decisions, daring initiatives, and decisive actions that have ultimately proved successful and far-sighted, even if unpopular at the time of their initiation, because they have emanated from an excellent grasp of regional alignments and international trends. Examples are fresh in every Syrian’s memory:

(1)The armed intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976, on the side of the Phalangist Party and against Syria’s natural and traditional allies in Lebanon, including the Palestinians.

(2)The swift eradication of the Islamist armed insurrection in Syria in the early Eighties.

(3)The defiant destruction of the separate Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty that Secretary of State George Schultz concluded behind Syria’s back and at its expense in 1984.

(4)The unwavering alliance with Iran throughout the Iraq-Iran war, at a time when the entire Arab world and the West were solidly backing Saddam Hussein.

(5)The daring participation in the Gulf War on the side of the Allies in their campaign to free Kuwait.

Halfway through Netanyahu’s tenure, a sharp controversy erupted again in the Arab world with Egypt and Syria as its epicenters. This is known as the Copenhagen controversy. Once more, the regime in Syria had little to do either with initiating the debate or with its course and development, although the local media were used by the contestants. What is this Copenhagen quarrel?

Acute dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and his policies suddenly created a qualitatively new kind of special Arab vital interest in who rules Israel (and in the party that happens to be in power there). Even in Syria, a feeling was creeping over us that the local conventional wisdom about Labor and Likud agreeing on all the decisive issues is already outmoded and not in touch with new realities in the area. Israel’s internal affairs seemed, all of a sudden, to be acquiring an intimate sort of interest in Damascus that was never there before.

In this climate, a number of prominent Egyptian public intellectuals—led by the famous writer, journalist, and activist Lutfi Al-Khouli—started preparing a conference with like-minded Israelis to be held in Copenhagen, to see what could be done about getting rid of Netanyahu, returning Labor to power, and putting the peace process back on track again. This is indeed the first time ever that Arabs openly and frankly organized a meeting for the purpose of affecting directly Israel’s choice of government. The feeling that they now have a vital stake in who rules Israel could no longer be dispelled, camouflaged, or sublimated. The initiative was intended to throw for once the weight of the Arabs, for whatever it is worth inside Israel, against Netanyahu and his government, and to create some sort of an Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace block that would help return Labor to power.

Although the conference itself never took place—owing to the fierce opposition it encountered and the defection of some of the people involved in organizing it—the Arab controversy over its very purpose and program was huge, varied, passionate, and often vicious. It reached a climax in a Pan-Arab debate in the “Crossfire” format on satellite television between Lutfi Al-Khouli himself and the secretary general of Syria’s Arab Writers Union, ‘Ali ‘Ouqla ‘Ursan, in the winter of 1999. The confrontation was broadcast by the Arab world’s currently most successful and widely watched television station, Al-Jazira, based in Qatar.


Unfortunately, Lutfi Al-Khouli died before Ehud Barak acceded to power in May 1999. But the consensus among observers of the peace process in Damascus right now is that the Copenhagen idea and debate served their purposes eminently well. It is true that throughout the controversy the general attitude in Syria was critical of the project and even hostile to it. Nevertheless, a remarkable development did occur with the start of the new Israeli electoral campaign. Never before had an Israeli election been so apprehensively followed, so deeply discussed, and so carefully watched, by both official and popular Syria, as the contest between Netanyahu and Barak. I would not be exaggerating if I were to say that Damascus followed the contest this time as if it were an internal matter. To the dismay of some, it had become clear to all that even Syria had developed a direct vital stake in the results of Israeli elections.

In Damascus, the Barak victory was generally received with unaccustomed relief and some heightened expectations concerning peace and the peace process. To the surprise of most of us, the exchange of smiles and compliments between President Asad and the new prime minister passed casually and without raising eyebrows either publicly or privately. It became evident to me at that point that Syria had been pushed beyond its earlier mood of stoic resignation. Had President Asad praised an Israeli prime minister during the post-Madrid phase of contacts, for instance, observers in Damascus would have been surprised as never before, and would have received the news with utter disbelief and dismay. But when Asad praised Barak after Barak won the elections of May 1999, Damascus was surprised at itself for having taken the news so coolly and in stride, as if the whole episode were a matter of course. Even more telling is the fact that no controversies have erupted so far over the issues involving normalization of relations, for instance, and no denunciations of the type directed against the Copenhagen idea have been heard either.

The Netanyahu interregnum is now seen in Damascus in three different ways: first, as a necessary evil needed to bring the two parties together and drive home the lesson that there is a considerable difference between Labor and Likud when in power; second, as an imperialist plot and a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy to make Labor look good, conciliatory, and acceptable in Arab eyes; third, as an example of the Hegelian cunning of history working itself out in the direction of a peaceful settlement with Israel. Some Hegelio-Marxians think now of a higher Middle Eastern synthesis emerging historically out of the supersession of both the old Arab thesis and the newer Israeli antithesis.

For intellectuals in Damascus, the fall of Netanyahu pointed to another kind of lesson as well. When he first ran for election, much was said about him as a great television personality, much was made of the present power of the media to make or break candidates, leaders, and politicians regardless of programs, issues, stands, qualifications, etc. Much hype was heard—particularly from the postmodernist pundits and spin doctors—about how only images, television appeal, sound bites, and media manipulation counted in politics these days. Well, the fall of this supposedly highly photogenic media manipulator goes to show that at least in one troubled part of the world, burning issues still count, affairs of war and peace remain decisive, and political stands and tactics continue to make or break candidates.

Syria is adamant about the return of the entire Golan Heights as a condition for peace, security arrangements, and the normalization of relations with Israel. Although officially the whole Golan extends to the cease-fire lines as they existed just before the start of the war on June 5, 1967, Syria has recently shown flexibility on this matter by admitting (at the Shepherdstown peace talks in early January 2000) that these are really adjustable military lines and not borders. On the other hand, the present Israeli government is promoting a definition of the “whole Golan” that stops at the international border between Syria and Palestine as demarcated by the British and French mandatory authorities in 1923. The withdrawal precedent cited in this instance is the return of the “whole of Sinai” up to the international border between Egypt and Palestine as demarcated in 1906, by the British colonial administration and the Ottoman authorities.

All informed observers in Damascus know that the fundamental point in Syria’s resumed negotiations with Israel at Shepherdstown is to find an adequate way to cross the bridge between these two definitions of “the whole Golan.” As has been said, one Syrian objection to the Israeli definition is that it would cut Syria off from the access it had to Lake Tiberias before June 4, 1967. In the end, given the very small size of the area between the two definitions, there is nothing to stop the two sides from agreeing on a convenient and mutually acceptable line of withdrawal, and then calling it the rectified June 4 line as well as the final international border between the two countries. The American sponsors of the negotiations may very well promote such a helpful calculated “constructive ambiguity.”

In fact, these peace talks could not have recommenced in the first place had not President Clinton resorted to one of these “constructive ambiguities” when he announced on December 9, 1999, that the two sides had agreed to resume their negotiations from the point at which they were interrupted, expressly refraining from defining that point of interruption. Underlying the need for such a gimmick are Syria’s longstanding affirmations that: (a) Had Prime Minister Rabin not pledged himself, in 1993, to a withdrawal to the June 4 line, Syria would not have permitted the negotiations on all the other issues and details to proceed in the first place. (b) This highly secret pledge, relayed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to President Asad, took the form of a written document deposited with the US Department of State. (c) Although Christopher informed Asad in December 1995 of Peres’s continued commitment to the “Rabin Deposit,” Peres nonetheless proceeded to withdraw from the Maryland peace talks and to call for early elections. (d) Syria will, therefore, resume negotiations with Israel only from the point at which they were broken off—i.e., agreement on the “Rabin Deposit.” This Syrian insistence is to be seen in light of the fact that Netanyahu was elected prime minister on a platform that expressly precluded a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

This secret pledge may also be understood against the background of Syria’s longstanding position that since the Golan Heights is occupied territory, the settlement of its future should flow from the principles of international law and not from the principles of Israeli sovereignty. In other words, there is no need to submit a Syrian-Israeli agreement on the Heights either to a referendum or to approval by the Knesset. It was not until February 27 this year that Prime Minister Barak openly confirmed both the existence of the “Rabin Deposit” and his predecessor’s commitment to a full withdrawal from the Golan (down to or very near the June 4 line), in return for Syria’s satisfying Israel’s security and normalization conditions. As The New York Times reported on February 28,

Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel told his cabinet today that Yitzhak Rabin…had given guarantees that Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for security commitments by Syria…. Mr. Barak appeared to confirm what Syria has long maintained—that Mr. Rabin had left a “deposit” with the Americans, a promise that a full withdrawal would be undertaken if Syria conceded Israel’s demands on security.

Since Barak’s accession to power, observers of the peace process in Damascus have noted that a number of lines of interest seem to be converging in favor of producing a peace agreement in the reasonably near future. Among these lines of interest are:

(1) Barak’s open commitments to negotiating a framework for a permanent settlement with the Palestinians and concluding the final status negotiations before the end of the year 2000. Also to disengaging Israel from southern Lebanon by July of the same year, on the basis of an agreement with Syria if possible, but unilaterally if necessary.

(2) Arafat’s deadline for the announcement of the new Palestinian state before the end of this year.

(3) The evident eagerness of key Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco) to bring the whole Middle Eastern peace process to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.

(4) President Clinton’s natural desire to end his presidency with a significant and lasting success in so troubled and vital a region as the Middle East.

(5) Syria’s desire to end the conflict on credible terms so it can attend to its own internal problems and urgently needed reforms in view of the mounting pressures of a post-cold war globalizing world order.

Finally, when the peace comes, it will be, then, not so much the peace of the brave as the peace of the weary and exhausted.

May 18, 2000

This Issue

June 15, 2000