Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of December 15, 1999 6 Tevet 5760

A PRELUDE TO WAR

By David Bar-Illan

(December 15) - What supporters of the proposed agreement with Syria expect is clear. Once the treaty is signed, the dream of comprehensive peace in the Middle East will finally materialize. Israel and its neighbors will be swamped with investors. Tourism will burgeon. And free movement of people and goods will transform the Arab dictatorships into enlightened, advanced societies. Surely, relinquishing the Golan, painful though it may be, is not too high a price for so promising an outcome.

True, even the terminally optimistic realize that the Golan will not be the last Israeli concession. The "root cause" of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian problem, must also be addressed. But the momentum created by peace with Syria, they believe, will persuade the Palestinians to reach a reasonable compromise.

To debunk this utopian scenario is all too easy. The expectation that, once Israel "returns to its natural size," the Arab regimes will discard antisemitic incitement, change textbooks, reduce military budgets, seriously fight anti-Israel terrorism, support Israel in the international arena, and promote peaceful cooperation instead of Israel's delegitimation is a wish-dream that belongs in fairy tales, not in Middle East reality.

As recent experience has shown, the more concessionary and conciliatory Israel is, the weaker it is perceived to be, and the more likely it is to be subjected to escalating demands. Nor is there any evidence that peace and stability attract investors rather than the prospect of profits and a business-friendly environment. Some of the poorest countries in the world are peaceful and stable.

Before surrendering the Golan, it may be useful to remember that unlike Israelis and other Westerners, whose passion for instant gratification is quintessentially summarized in the slogan "peace now," Arabs view the conflict with an historic perspective. They believe the Zionist enterprise is a foreign invasion like the Crusades, and that regardless of its current viability it is doomed to fail.

When the 1973 war made them realize that Israel could not be defeated in a frontal military attack, they changed tactics, not goals. The Arab League and the PLO constructed "the plan of stages," which envisioned retrieving as much territory as possible by peaceful means and attacking Israel only after it becomes diminished and demoralized.

In Arab eyes, the plan is proceeding nicely despite internecine bickering. Israel's gains in the 1967 war are being gradually eliminated, and the military balance is changing. Egypt, which in 1967 was a second-rate power equipped with inferior Soviet arms, now has a powerful, American-armed military force. Despite traditional American promises to maintain Israel's qualitative edge, the Egyptian army has been supplied with sophisticated arms Israel does not have.

The Syrian army now expects to undergo a similar transformation.

Ill-equipped and strapped for funds, it will be armed and trained by the US. And since the administration has not demanded that it withdraw from Lebanon, it will be able to threaten Israel on two fronts.

The basic premise of President Clinton's Pax Americana now being imposed on the region is that the main players should depend on American aid and arms, giving Washington control over their military moves. That in the volatile Middle East such calculations do not always work was evinced in Iran, where the vast American-built military infrastructure fell into the hands of the ayatollahs.

To make the impending agreement palatable, a campaign of purification of the Assad regime has been launched by both the US and Israel. But Assad has not changed. He is a ruthless despot, a sponsor of terrorism, and a major drug exporter who has kept Syria isolated, oppressed, and poor. Touted as a man of his word, Assad has broken virtually every agreement he has ever made with Turkey, the Arab countries, and the US. The only area in which he avoids trouble is the Golan, where the Israeli army is within striking distance of Damascus.

Nor is it likely that peace with Israel will make Syria "join the world." Totalitarian regimes know how to filter foreign influences. Chances are the opposite will happen. Syria considers not only Lebanon, but Israel and Jordan as part of Greater Syria. It is a belief deeply rooted in its history and national mystique, and openly shared by Israeli Arab leaders. Syrian free access to these leaders is almost certain to create a wave of irredentism, which will transform today's demands for Arab autonomy in Galilee to agitation for secession.

Combined with Syrian presence near (if not on) the Kinneret, the prospect of such agitation makes Syria's reoccupation of the Golan a decisive step toward the realization of the plan of stages.

And, lest we forget, the last stage of this plan is war.

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David Bar-Illan was the former editor of The Jerusalem Post and was the director of Prime Minister Netanyahu's Communication and Planning Office.



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