Hat tip to Haaretz for featuring a Der Spiegel interview with Syria’s Bashir Assad on the subject of prospects for peace with Israel. In short, they appear dim but mainly because Israel seems unable or unwilling to respond to them.
It is important to note the differences between Iran’s attitude toward Israel and Syria’s:
SPIEGEL: At the moment, Syria enjoys excellent relations with Iran. Do you agree with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s demand that Israel be “wiped off the map?”
Assad: I don’t say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace – peace with Israel…
SPIEGEL: Under your father, Syria and Israel came very close to a peace treaty. Will you one day sit down at the same table with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?
Assad: Diplomats would likely have to sit down together for a long time – like 10 years ago when we negotiated with Israel under the mediation of President Bill Clinton. But if peace comes, then everything will change. Peace has a lot of strength. Whether I will ever sit down with Olmert, whether I ever shake his hand, I’ll decide that when the time comes.
In talking about the terrorists who carried out the U.S. embassy attack in Damascus, Assad’s analysis of their background and motivation echoes quite clearly the recent National Intelligence Estimate which warns how severely the occupation of Iran and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ratcheted up the danger of terrorism:
Our conclusions are based on data that was in the attackers’ computers and on information from their private sphere. They were essentially from the same intellectual mould: men who call Osama bin Laden the “Lion of Islam.” Al-Qaida people — not in a hierarchical sense, but in terms of their worldview. Isolated young men from the Damascus suburbs — which is what makes the whole thing so dangerous. We can fight a terrorist group, but these isolated cells suggest that such ideas are widespread.
Clearly, Israeli intransigence in negotiating a settlement with its neighbors plus the U.S. occupation of Iraq have taken the terrorist impulse far beyond the relatively organized confines of Al Qaeda. Now, all manner of disgruntled Muslims and Arabs are willing to take on the mantle of Defender of Islam, using terror weapons to deliver their message. As the intelligence report described–it is a much more dangerous world than it was just after 9/11.
But the positive news is that it doesn’t have to be that way or stay that way. If the U.S. withdraws its troops and exerts serious pressure on Israel to negotiate peace with Palestine, Syria and Lebanon–then things can return to a more stable equilibrium that ensures the tranquility of the region while guaranteeing security to all parties, including Israel.
And to those pro-Israel partisans who claims that “radical Arabs” use the Right of Return as a subterfuge to eliminate the State of Israel, read this tacit admission of Assad’s that the Right of Return will apply only to Palestine and not Israel:
SPIEGEL: What exactly will happen to the Palestinian refugees? To where should they return?
Assad: They have the right of return, at least to Palestine…
SPIEGEL: … to Palestine or Israel?
Assad: You would have to talk to the Palestinians about that. What we are talking about now is their return to the Palestinian state — which is something George W. Bush also speaks about…
Incidentally, I do not believe that the majority of the refugees want to return to Israel. Most of them want to go back to a Palestine within the borders of 1967. The problem is that at the moment Israel is even rejecting this return.
While I’m no big fan of Syria or the Assad family dynastic tyranny there, the Syrian caricature that neocons paint is shown to be an illusion if you read this interview carefully. Yes, certainly they’ll say that he made these statements for an international audience and will make opposite statements for an internal audience. But the point is that his stated goals are consistent with his actions. He may’ve armed Hezbollah, but he has not engaged in war against Israel. And Syria in 2002, as the interview points out, was ready and willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel until Ehud Barak chickened out at the very last minute (one of several devastating errors he made while prime minister). This is why I take the sentiments expressed here very seriously.
Yossi Beilin in Haaretz has balefully and correctly noted that Ehud Olmert will never take up Assad’s offer. For Beilin this is yet another Israeli diplomatic blunder in its relations with Syria:
Army Radio on Sunday quoted Yossi Beilin as saying that the government’s refusal to explore a reported overture by Syria represented “diplomatic dereliction of duty” and blindness on the part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Beilin was responding to news reports that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem had said “The war in Lebanon has created a genuine opportunity for peace and for solving the problems of the region.”
Beilin was also quoted as saying that Israel’s refusal to examine repeated statements from Damascus represented [further] diplomatic dereliction of duty.
“If Olmert continues to tread the path of blindness and arrogance, this will lead us into another armed confrontation,” Beilin was quoted as telling the radio.
Mualem was quoted at the weekend as saying that although an opportunity had been created to deal with the Middle East conflict, he believed that the international community would fail to take advantage of the opportunity, as a result of Israeli pressure and American hegemony.
“I believe that the opportunity will not be exploited and will wither, and the dangers in the area will increase,” Mualem was quoted as saying.
Israel’s deafness toward its enemy is not only catastrophic it is almost criminal. Think how many Israelis have died because of hostilities with Syria whether during outright wars like 1973 or proxy fights like Lebanon 2006. To think that you could resolve that conflict merely by returning Shebaa Farms and the Golan and that Olmert refuses to do so, it’s enough to make one weep.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.