Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of March 17, 2000

TRUE SYRIAN INTENTIONS

By Daniel Pipes

The Syrian foreign minister recently gave an extraordinary speech. His talks with Israel had ended on January 10 and were supposed to resume nine days later. But they did not, because his own side put unexpected preconditions on the next round - requiring that Israel make huge concessions before it even started.

Then, to knock a few more nails in the coffin of the negotiations, Damascus published an outrageous Holocaust-denial article and Israeli soldiers were shot at in Lebanon (last count: seven dead). In this context came the speech by Foreign Minister Farouk Shara. It has a distinctly schizophrenic quality. In the first half he presents Israel as a regional superpower ("Israel is stronger than all the Arab states combined") beholden to hugely aggressive ambitions to expand far beyond its current borders.

Indeed, Israel is so expansive and aggressive, it threatens the very existence of the Arabs; in Shara's pungent words, it views the Arabs "as Indians that should be annihilated." Zionist power is so dangerous, in short, that Syria is better off ending the military conflict with Israel. This both neutralizes Israeli weapons and permits Syria to compete in the "political, ideological, economical, and commercial" arenas where it can do better in conflict against the Jewish state.

Then Shara abruptly switches gears and, in the speech's totally different second half, asserts that Syria under the leadership of Hafez Assad "is strong" and will never end the military conflict unless Israel agrees to return every meter of territory it took in 1967.

He denies recent stories and leaks that suggest Damascus's flexibility - that it would accept restrictions on its military, grant early-warning stations to Israel, expel Palestinian extremists, or make curriculum revisions. And should the "expansionist racists" in Israel not take advantage of the deal Damascus is offering them, it will be their loss, because thanks to Syria's own resources, Arab and international support, "our position is stronger than Israel's despite all its weapons."

Shara goes on to threaten Israel, announcing that the recovery of the 1967 lands is but the first stage toward "restoring Palestine in its entirety" - code words for the destruction of Israel. For anyone hoping Israel will reach a settlement with Syria, the foreign minister's remarks would appear to be a significant setback. He begins by accusing Israel of seeking to eliminate all Arabs; he ends trumpeting Syrian ambitions to destroy Israel.

NONETHELESS, in a recent article in Ha'aretz, Itamar Rabinovich - a leading academic specialist on Syria and Israel's former chief negotiator with Damascus - finds good news about the negotiations in Shara's speech.Rabinovich acknowledges it looks like a reversion to Syria's old rejectionist position but he finds it is actually "an attempt, albeit clumsy, to prepare the groundwork for a settlement with Israel."

How so? Rabinovich explains that where Shara seemed to be negative, he only "dug in his heels" as a bargaining position for future negotiations. In effect, "Syria is telling us for the second time through Shara that it wants to end the conflict with us and to replace it with a cold peace and with rivalry over the shape that the Middle East will take."

Now, I defer to no one in my admiration of Prof. Rabinovich's academic work. I praised his 1984 study of Lebanon as doing "an excellent job" of explaining its topic. I then lauded his 1991 inquiry into early Arab-Israeli negotiations for its "fine research and sensible conclusions." And I wrote that his 1998 book on Syrian-Israeli diplomacy is "a model of its genre."

But now this skilled and knowledgeable analyst is not seeing what is plainly in front of him. He has somehow turned Shara's threat about "restoring Palestine in its entirety" into a benign statement of a Syrian intent "to end the conflict." It appears that Prof. Rabinovich, along with many other Israeli leaders, is engaged in wishful thinking.

So badly do they want an Israeli agreement with Syria, they turn threats into concessions.

In a similar spirit, they insist that the Palestinian Authority has fulfilled its obligations. They even portray a unilateral Israeli retreat from Lebanon as a threat to Syrian interests. Such self-delusion is pleasant enough - until reality hits. And it always does hit. The only question is when and where, and how terrible the toll will be.

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Daniel Pipes is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and author of three books on Syria.



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