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Jewish World Review March 31, 2000 / 24 Adar II, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Romancing Assad

Peace depends on the dictator’s whims, not Jewish opinion -- IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID that peace will result if only we would just take the time to listen to our neighbors. If only we understood that they want the same things we do, then international conflicts would surely be a thing of the past.

As a rule of thumb for dealing with friends, relatives and the people who live upstairs and blast their stereos into the night, that is a philosophy that generally can’t be beaten.

All you have to do is walk up, knock on the door and ask them politely to turn down the volume. Most of the time, the neighbors will simply apologize and do as you ask.

But what if you live downwind from a guy like Syrian dictator Hafez Assad? How many years would it take you to figure out that asking politely doesn’t work? He’s the sort of neighbor who isn’t playing loud rap music just to entertain himself. The truth is, he just enjoys annoying you and wouldn’t know what to do with himself if hostilities were to end.

Thirty-three years later, would you still be pleading in vain for mutual understanding?

The problem is, projecting our own values and expectations onto others can get us in a lot of trouble. Merely stating that we want something to happen won’t make it so.

Five years ago, I sat in a New York City hotel suite with a few fellow journalists interviewing Israeli politician Yossi Beilin. At the time, Beilin was deputy foreign minister of Israel. Fresh from his Oslo triumph and deeply immersed in plans to expand the peace process, Beilin wasn’t in the mood to answer difficult questions about the wisdom of trading the Golan Heights for a peace treaty with Syria.

When asked about whether a skeptical Israeli public would accept such a deal, Beilin simply stared at this reporter and stated: “We will make peace.” The implication was that no matter what anyone in Israel or America said or did, his government was going to make a deal with Assad. I was suitably impressed by his single-minded determination, but wondered whether he ever considered if his counterparts in Damascus felt the same way. Five years and countless rejections later, it would seem that some caution on Beilin’s part would have been justified.

There has always been something about Syrian dictator Hafez Assad that has attracted foreign leaders. American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have all romanced the aging murderer of Damascus. The challenge of winning over this implacable foe of peace has tempted all of them. But the results are always the same.

From Jimmy Carter’s 1977 fawning pronouncement that Assad was a “moderate” to Bill Clinton’s date in Geneva last weekend, our presidents have consistently been suckered into paying Assad the respect he craves as an international leader but doesn't deserve. Clinton wants a Nobel Peace Prize so badly he can taste it.

Israeli leaders as diverse as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and now Ehud Barak have all offered Assad the Golan Heights on a silver platter, virtually begging him to accept it in exchange for a peace treaty? Yet, as Bill Clinton discovered in Geneva, for Assad, playing hard-to-get isn’t a tactic, it’s a way of life.

Experts on Syria have been trying to tell us this for years. Daniel Pipes, the scholar and author who runs the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, has written over and over again that Assad has no real interest in peace. Peace, and the opening up of Syrian society that normalized relations with Israel would bring, is the worst thing that could happen to him and his regime.

The evidence is clear that Pipes is right, but few seem to want to listen. Like Beilin, we all seem to believe that if we are determined to make peace, peace will be made.

If Assad wanted peace with Israel, he could have had it a long time ago — along with virtually every inch of the Golan Heights and a huge cash bonus in baksheesh — bribes — from the United States. But whatever the Israelis and the Americans offer, it never seems to be enough.

Israeli public opinion has shifted decisively in the five years since Yossi Beilin made his statement of manifest destiny to me, and in a way, that must please Beilin. For a variety of reasons, the people of Israel are prepared to do almost anything — including gambling Israel’s security and its rights — in order to achieve peace.

But Arab public opinion — and in the case of Syria, that means the opinion of the Assad clan — hasn’t budged a millimeter. Peace, even on their terms after years of concessions by Israel, just isn’t something they seem to want.

The funny thing is, the organized American Jewish world has been gearing up for battle over the impending peace deal with Syria for months. Had Clinton succeeded, it would have meant a massive aid package that would have amounted to tens of billions of dollars for Israel and Syria.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the left-wing Israel Policy Forum have been openly preparing to lobby Congress to pass the aid package, while the Zionist Organization of America has been preparing to oppose it.

The spectacle of American Jews bloodying themselves in competing lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill would have been something. Few American Jews would have felt good about pouring billions of American taxpayer dollars into one of the most brutal, undemocratic and anti-Semitic governments on earth.

Unfortunately, few leaders in either Washington or Jerusalem are listening to what experts like Daniel Pipes have been telling us. Projecting our own values onto people like Assad or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat makes the chaotic and violent world we live in understandable. It comforts us to think that if we only make an extra effort — and an extra concession — our most intractable problems will disappear.

But the question we should be asking is, which part of Assad’s “no” do we fail to understand?

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin