Dealing With Syria

This weekend’s Swiss summit between Bill Clinton and Hafez al-Assad is a make-or-break moment in the quest for peace between Syria and Israel. The American president will soon be a lame duck. The septuagenarian Syrian president is sick and eager to hand over the reins to his son, Bashar. And the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, the man in the empty chair in Geneva, is losing control of his coalition and his constituency.

If they don’t reach an agreement by the summer, it may be too late. That is why Israel greeted the summit announcement with extreme caution. The public signals from Damascus have been threatening and insulting. Barak’s circle remembers all too painfully the disenchantment after the last Clinton-Assad summit, also in Geneva, in January 1994. Assad wanted everything and offered nothing — not even a corner at the concluding press conference for Israeli reporters.

Not everyone is despondent, however. There have been enough credible leaks — from Israeli, Arab and American sources — to suggest that significant progress has been made behind-the-scenes on issues such as the Golan border, water sources, security and the nature of the peace. Now Assad has to show the political will to conclude a deal that Barak can sell to a skeptical Israeli public.

The Syrian leader’s performance so far has been as disturbing to the left, which is ready to sacrifice the Golan Heights for peace, as it is to the right, which wants to keep them. He won’t meet Barak. He won’t allow his foreign minister to shake Barak’s hand. Syrian officials call Israelis Nazis, while at the same time accusing Jews of fabricating the Holocaust. They hint that the proposed peace is only a way station toward the destruction of the Zionist enterprise. And Damascus keeps Hezbollah’s guerrilla war bubbling in Southern Lebanon.

As so often before, the eloquent Hebrew novelist Amos Oz has distilled the unease of the doves. They are peaceniks but not pacifists; Israelis who know they will pay their share of the price if the peace proves as flawed as the hawks predict. Assad has still to convince them.

In an impassioned interview with Ha’aretz last weekend, Oz accused him of making every effort to present Israel with a peace agreement in the form of an enema. “He is clearly determined to humiliate and degrade us,” Oz argued. “It is as if he was demanding not just peace, and not even just the Golan, but that Ehud Barak should go to meet him dressed only in his underwear, with his hands raised in surrender.”

Oz wondered aloud whether Assad wasn’t seeking peace with the United States, rather than peace with Israel. Was his real aim to free Syria from “the stranglehold of encirclement and isolation,” while pushing Israel into the international sin bin? “I see a worrying possibility,” Oz said, “that, following the initialing of an American-backed agreement, Assad will make very sure that it will not receive a majority here in a referendum. And he will do that by repeatedly spitting in our faces.”

Maybe it is all a difference of cultures. Assad is a dictator who doesn’t understand how democracies work. However, I remember that another Arab dictator, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, did things differently, flying to Jerusalem, pressing the flesh, dining with Menachem Begin, addressing the Knesset (even if the things he said there rang pretty harsh to Israeli ears).

“Sadat,” Oz insisted, “understood that our problem, the problem of both the Jewish people and of Israel, was not merely a problem of land and security, but an emotional problem, our problem of isolation and humiliation. That is why Sadat began the peace process by establishing an emotional breakthrough.”

Assad has not even tried, but perhaps Assad is looking for a deal by the end of May. Barak, too, is not without hope. He urged his warring coalition partners to patch up their differences so as not to destroy the chances of peace.