Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 25, 1999
Peace is breaking out all over. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad are practically exchanging love notes through the good offices of US President Bill Clinton.
Radio Damascus is telling its people that peace with Israel is possible. Reports indicate that Syria is curbing terrorist groups operating from its territory. And Assad is reportedly thinking of returning Eli Cohen’s body.
Our boys in uniform could be out of Lebanon and home for Chanukah.
So why am I not beaming with joy?
It is not that I dismiss the strategic and historic importance of an Israeli-Syrian deal. Every peace agreement is important. Although the almost-certain return of the Golan to Syria, dismantling of settlements and all, makes me cringe and cry and very upset, I am nevertheless increasingly resigned to the changing, and probably inevitable, political realities.
What sobers me most is the knowledge that the current summer euphoria over peace with Syria will produce, I’m afraid, a very cold peace. A peace treaty which will boast of “normalization”, but beget none. We will get a deal that provides, hopefully, regional stability; but also a deal that, in all likelihood, attenuates little of the decades-old hostility.
After all, we don’t really expect more of Assad than we do of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, do we? Egypt got all of Sinai back, every last granule of sand — airbases, oil fields and all. And in return? We got a neighbor that holds its fire on the border – a significant achievement indeed — yet at the same time is quite belligerent.
Under Mubarak and Foreign Minister Amre Moussa, Egypt has been unhelpful in the peace process, an anti-Israel agitator at international fora, and worryingly anti-Semitic at home. The government in Cairo often has been a saboteur of expanded Israel-Arab ties, not a broker or partner.
Mubarak continually finds ways to excuse or justify Palestinian terrorism, warning us that terrorism is the “inevitable consequence” of Israeli intransigence. Egypt views us as a regional rival, works assiduously to undermine our strategic ties with Turkey, and is rebuilding its armed forces with the most modern, American weaponry.
The anti-Semitism especially bothers me. In cartoons, caricatures, opinion columns, and other Egyptian media Jews are often depicted as dirty, hook-nosed, money hungry world dominators. Comparisons of Israel with the Nazis (targeted against both Likud and Labor governments), denial of the Holocaust and traditional libels are also common.
And oh yes, the first prize at this year’s Egypt Book Fair was awarded to a new eight-volume anti-Semitic Arabic encyclopedia on “Jews, Judaism and Zionism”.
So, absolutely no Israeli I know goes shopping in the Cairo shuk. We Israelis are not welcome there and it is much too dangerous.
Now, do you really think it is going to be any different with Assad?
Syria is a far more closed and less cosmopolitan society than Egypt. Nothing that is independent moves or breathes in the country. Assad’s rule is absolute; even tourists are tightly watched. You can’t own a fax machine, never mind get free access to the Internet. Residents of Hamma, the few who survived the 1982 government-executed massacre, can tell you just how nice a place Assad’s Syria is to live.
Like in Egypt, there are frequent anti-Semitic articles and caricatures in the Syrian media, including classical anti-Semitic stereotypes, comparisons of Israel with the Nazis and Holocaust denial.
A recent ADL report details Syrian anti-Semitism, including press carping on the “international Jewish conspiracy” behind the Monica Lewinsky affair. Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass wrote last August that the Lewinsky affair “is a plot fabricated by worldwide Zionism”. This, from the author of “The Matza of Zion”, an anti-Semitic tract which attempts to substantiate the 1840 blood libel against the Jews of Damascus.
Remember, as well, that Assad’s regime has poor relations with just about all its neighbors, as any Jordanian, Iraqi or Palestinian will tell you. Fundamentalist Iran is its best friend in the region.
Even after signing on the dotted line, we are bound to endure significant feuding over water resources. Drug running from Syria is already a problem, and can only get worse if the border opens up. All those Syrian missiles will be around for quite some time too. And who knows whether the next Syrian leader will be as “reliable” as Assad; or even as “friendly” as Mubarak.
Consequently, I somehow doubt that Barak’s deal with Assad will end out test of wills with Syria. I can’t see the return of the Golan opening the way for twice-weekly Egged tours of Syrian fun-and-sun spots.
The pact with Syria towards which we are headed may be strategically sound, but it will be neither painless nor perfect, nor will it bring the messiah. It would be wise to keep the euphoria in check.