Reprinted from the New York Post of Monday-December 13, 1999


By David Bar-Illan

NO one in Israel opposes negotiations with Syria. It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the hard-line Likud leader, who brought Syria to the negotiating table in 1991. The Israeli consensus is for talks. But the Israel-Syria talks scheduled to begin in Washington this week are not negotiations in the accepted sense. As in a fixed game, their result is known in advance. Syria's president Hafez Assad agreed to negotiate only after being assured of retrieving all the land he lost in a war of aggression against Israel. There will be total Israeli withdrawal, not to the international border, but to the 1967 lines, which include areas forcibly occupied by Syria before the 1967 war. (So much for the principle, repeatedly cited by Arab regimes, that land taken by force must be returned).

Nor will Syria be required to end its occupation of Lebanon. So despite predictions of arduous negotiations, made mostly to assure Israelis that nothing has been given up yet, there will not be much to talk about. There may be some minute territorial adjustments, mostly to allow Barak to keep his campaign promise that "no Syrian soldiers will paddle in the Sea of Galilee." There will be arguments over the extent of demilitarization on the Syrian and the Israeli side, over the multinational - mostly American - forces that will patrol the Golan, and over the early warning stations. But the fix is in, and unless the unpredictable Assad will again balk, an agreement is practically assured.

The main question now is whether Barak can win a national referendum on this agreement. This depends on his ability to convince the Israeli public that the security arrangements are indeed adequate, and that the sacrifice of the Golan will finally bring comprehensive regional peace. Yet it is doubtful that such regimes as Iraq, Iran and Libya will follow Syria's lead. On the contrary. The chances of Syria joining them in attacking Israel, once they are equipped with long range missiles and nuclear arms, are better with the Golan in Syria's hands.

Nor will the possession of the Golan be the only addition to Syria's power. An agreement with Israel will enable Damascus to modernize its army with massive American help and make it again a formidable military machine. Clinton's concept of Pax Americana is to make local dictators dependent on American arms. There is no better example of the fallacy of such thinking in the volatile Middle East than the case of Iran, where an enormous American investment in the Shah proved a boon for the fanatic anti-Western Ayatollahs.

What seems to be missing in the agreement is a consideration of the nature of Assad's regime. Like Saddam Hussein, Assad is a ruthless despot who has kept Syria isolated, backward, oppressed and in economic decline. He has broken virtually every agreement he has ever made with Turkey, the Arab countries and the U.S. The only area in which he avoids trouble is the Golan, where the Israeli army is within striking distance of Damascus. Had a Reagan been leading Israel, he would not have tried to rescue such a regime. He would have let it implode.

Some believe that peace with Israel will force Syria to open up and "join the world." But totalitarian regimes know how to filter foreign influences. Chances are the exact opposite will happen. Syrian access to the Galilee Arabs will create a powerful irredentist movement among them, and their current demands for autonomy will turn into agitation for secession. It is this danger that makes an agreement with Syria so different from the peace with Egypt. Syria considers Israel, Jordan and Lebanon part of Greater Syria. It is a belief deeply rooted in Syria's national mystique, and held by many Israeli Arabs as well. That Syria will use the peace agreement to continue undermining Israel's existence is far more likely than that it would join the enlightened world in seeking peace, security and prosperity for all.


David Bar-Illan is the former editor of The Jerusalem Post and and was Communication Minister in the Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

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