Reprinted from The Boston Globe -- December 23, 1999
A RECKLESS GAMBLE
By Jeff Jacoby
Alois Brunner, who sent as many as 150,000 Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust, is the most notorious Nazi war criminal still at large. As Adolf Eichmann's deputy, Brunner supervised the liquidation of Jewish communities in Austria, Germany, Greece, and Slovakia. For 14 months he was commandant of the notorious concentration camp in Drancy, France, whence more than 23,000 Jews were sent to the death camps. One notorious entry on his resume is the roundup of 340 Jewish orphans in Paris in July 1944. They were sent by cattle car to Auschwitz.
French courts have twice convicted Brunner in absentia and sentenced him to death. This month a French judge cleared the way for a third trial. Four other countries -- Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Poland -- have issued warrants for Brunner's arrest.
But all of these convictions and warrants are unavailing, for Brunner has the protection of a powerful patron: Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria. As the Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported recently, Brunner "has been given sanctuary in Damascus for decades, during which time he has helped to train Syria's secret police in the use of torture."
This is the Syria that is ready to make peace with Israel?
Yet to hear the Israeli prime minister tell it, an Israeli-Syrian treaty is all but a done deal. "It is possible to complete negotiations with Syria in very little time," Ehud Barak said to his cabinet last week, "perhaps in a few weeks."
The 18,000 Israelis who live in the Golan -- the strategic plateau Israel seized from Syria in self-defense during the 1967 war -- have been told to start packing. Barak: "I can't tell you an agreement will be reached without a high price. The price will be one our generation will pay on behalf of future generations -- an end to the bloodshed." One Israeli paper quoted an even blunter government minister: "It is all done; they have to start moving out."
All done? The New York Times seems to think so too. "The Israelis and Syrians appear eager to resolve their differences quickly," it editorialized on the day the peace talks began in Washington. "Chances seem good that a deal can be worked out." In its news columns, the Times assured readers that Farouk al-Shara'a, Syria's belligerent foreign minister, could be "expected to present a gentler face than in the past."
Shara'a had other ideas. At the White House ceremony opening the negotiations, Barak and Bill Clinton spoke mild words of welcome. Shara'a, by contrast, delivered a bitter diatribe that blamed Israeli "occupation" for 50 years of Arab enmity, invented half a million mythical Syrian refugees from the Golan, and insisted that unless Israel surrenders every square inch of land "to their original owners," the Arabs would pursue a permanent "conflict of existence in which bloodshed can never stop." On the other hand, if Israel yields to Syrian demands, it will be rewarded. With full diplomatic relations? Open borders? Two-way trade and tourism? An end to anti-Israel terrorism?
Well -- no. "For Israel," Shara'a said, "peace will mean the end of the psychological fear which the Israelis have been living in as a result of the existence of occupation." Giving the Golan to Assad, in other words, will be its own reward.
It is one thing for Israelis to dream of peace. It is something rather different to act as though the difference between dreams and reality has been effaced.
Syria is ruled by a cruel dictator-for-life who presides over one of the world's most repressive regimes. To cement his grip on power he has scrupled at nothing, including the massacre of tens of thousands of his own citizens. Civil and political rights are nonexistent in Syria, and the media are state-controlled. Syria is on the State Department's list of drug-exporting countries *and* its list of states that sponsor terrorism. Any deal that would strengthen such a regime -- and it is understood that in exchange for signing a pact with Israel, Syria would get not only the Golan but billions of dollars in US economic and military aid -- would be a shortsighted, reckless gamble.
Like most dictatorships, Syria breaks its word. Since seizing power in 1970, Assad has broken agreement after agreement, as Turkey, Lebanon, and the United States can attest. It is folly to imagine that he would respect an accord with Israel. Once he has the Golan, his interest in complying with the rest of the treaty will evaporate. And what will Israel do when Assad takes the land but doesn't deliver the peace? Re-invade?
Hatred of Jews and the Jewish state is fundamental to Assad's system. The nation's longtime defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, is the author of "The Matza of Zion," a book promoting the medieval libel that Jews murder gentiles and consume their blood on Passover. Syrian citizens are fed a steady diet of anti-Israel invective. To believe that such a government has peace with Israel on its agenda is delusional.The Syrian-Israeli frontier is quiet, and has been for 26 years. Not coincidentally, Israeli artillery can reach Damascus from the Golan. The surest way to preserve the de facto peace that already exists is to maintain that deterrent.
The day will come when Syria will be genuinely ready for peace. Then talk of treaties and territorial givebacks will make sense. We will know that day has arrived when Assad, like Anwar Sadat, journeys to Jerusalem and holds out his hand in friendship. When Syria shuts down the bloody terror groups that train on its soil. And when Nazi butchers no longer find sanctuary in Damascus.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.