May/June 2000

Break with the Past in the Middle East

By Henry Kissinger

© Jerusalem Post 2000 (June 28)

To foster peace between Israel and its neighbors America must stand aside.

The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad has brought the spotlight back on the Middle East peace process. President Bill Clinton has reaffirmed his confidence in Assad's statement to him in 1993, embracing a strategy for peace, and has expressed the hope that Assad's son and successor, Bashar, will complete the process. The impact on the Palestinian negotiations is widely assessed as positive. Visits to the area by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Dennis Ross, the State Department's permanent mediator, portend another American push for final agreement.

But, as before, one piece of the puzzle was not discussed: the clashing concepts of peace held in America and Israel on the one hand, and among the Syrian and Palestinian leaders on the other. The Clinton administration - and indeed most Americans - consider a peace treaty a terminal point that defines not only an end of hostilities but a change of heart. Tensions are expected to dissolve into coexistence and animosities of a century into a pattern of cooperation.

This vision is even more strongly held in Israel. Living for most of its history within borders not recognized by the outside world, beset by terrorists and bled in three major wars and innumerable small-scale clashes, Israel confronts a paradox: on the one hand, it towers over its neighbors militarily; on the other, it is exhausted by its sacrifices and ambiguous status. Seeking surcease, many Israelis, probably a majority, have endowed peace with the mythic attributes of a blissful state of harmony.

IT IS AS IF the Jewish messianic tradition has prevailed over the experience of centuries of persecution and the lesson that few peace settlements have ever brought about such an emotional reversal. Israel, in Assad's view - and that of most Palestinian leaders - was an illegitimate creation inspired, as he said to me once, "by imperialists in compensation for crimes committed in another continent, by another religion." He was, in the end, prepared to acquiesce in Israel's existence for want of a better alternative. Perhaps the new technology and global economics will, in time, turn grudging acceptance into long-term harmony. But nothing in Assad's attitude, or of many Palestinian leaders, justifies this expectation for the immediate future.

As for Assad, anyone who dominated Syria for 30 years - when, in the previous decade and a half, no Syrian leader had managed to stay in office for as long as a year - must have done so by understanding Syria's current realities. As a member of the Alawite minority, representing less than 13 percent of the Syrian population, Assad learned to combine caution and enormous tactical skill with great ruthlessness, as documented in the 1982 destruction of the rebellious city of Hama.

ASSAD'S NATIONALISM appealed to the Sunni majority, which felt betrayed by the Western powers after having led a rebellion against Turkey during World War I and then again, even more grievously, with the establishment of Israel after World War II. Unlike his great contemporary, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Assad did not see himself as the representative of a society harking back over millennia and therefore capable of transcending transient hatreds by a grand gesture. Instead, Assad's nationalism was defined by a militancy asserted every hour of every day. As the aggrieved party, he saw no need for generous gestures. His negotiating style emphasized recalcitrance and tough bargaining rather than currying favor with America. Syrian nationalism was put forward not on behalf of Syria as a nation, but of Pan-Arabism, enabling Assad to resist Egyptian (or Iraqi) claims to regional leadership and assert his own.

In executing his design, Assad, ever conscious of his narrow base, rarely moved ahead of his domestic consensus or, when he did, shaped it so indirectly that he could not be isolated in the aftermath. When I negotiated with him for 35 consecutive days in 1974 over the only Syrian-Israeli agreement now in existence, the daily ritual was unvarying: first, a lengthy private meeting with Assad, followed by a briefing of the leading generals and concluding with yet another briefing including civilian ministers - the entire process frequently extending over eight hours and skillfully steered by Assad toward his preferred outcome.

When Assad finally announced his commitment to "peace," it reflected a new reality, not conversion to the American, much less the Israeli, definition of that term. The Soviet Union, Syria's principal arms supplier, had disintegrated. America, after the Gulf War, bestrode the Middle East.

Israel had made peace with Egypt and was negotiating with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Assad had no reliable Arab allies. Remembering that Israel had wiped out most of the Syrian air force in one day in 1982, Assad had every incentive to avoid a pretext for another preemptive strike. An agreement that might restore territories Syria had no means of reconquering in the foreseeable future presented the most practical way to preserve Syria's options, reduce its risks and maintain its prestige - especially if it came about in a manner whereby major concessions could be presented as having been exacted from Israel by its fatigue, American pressure and Syrian intransigence.

A PROFOUND difference in perspective shaped the subsequent negotiations. America and Israel were looking for a dramatic culmination celebrating a turning point, preferably at a colorful summit chaired by the American president. Assad would go no further than a reluctant evolution. He recoiled from an outcome that appeared to result from a personal decision, which might leave him vulnerable at home - or was too much like what he disdained as Sadat's kowtowing to the West. (This was one of the reasons for the failure of his three meetings with Clinton.)

Still, I believe that, toward the end, Assad was creating the circumstances from which he could move in one relatively short step to a conclusion, but that he deferred that step until he was sure he had regulated the succession at home.

Assad's death has not altered the circumstances that convinced him to join the peace process; confrontation has not become a better option for Syria. But neither have the domestic constraints impelling Assad's caution. Bashar's chief objective must be to consolidate his power. The factions so skillfully and ruthlessly balanced by Assad will, after the period of mourning, maneuver against each other. But there is one new element never fully faced by Assad: the Syrian economy is a shambles. Syria cannot modernize without foreign investment, and that requires some semblance of peace. On the other hand, modernizing means taking on the embedded fiefdoms and constituencies that were the backbone of Assad's rule.

THEREFORE, the prospects for an Israeli-Syrian agreement depend far less on American diplomacy than on Syrian internal dynamics. The differences between the two sides are so narrow that a compromise could be constructed, literally, in a matter of days. What is at issue is a small sliver of territory never demarcated as Syrian on international maps but occupied by it between 1949 and 1967, in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war. Israel seems willing to concede even that point provided Syria does not use it to claim riparian rights on the Sea of Galilee and interfere with Israeli fishing.

When the issue is so clear-cut, its solution is unlikely to be hastened by American exertions that may simply create an opportunity to raise the ante. America - and the Clinton administration - deserve much credit for having moved matters to this point. The time has come when, paradoxically, the best impetus America can give is to stand aside. Too hasty an American embrace of Bashar may, in fact, undermine him. Our diplomacy cannot succeed if we seem to want peace more than the parties; Syria's domestic evolution does not respond to the deadlines of the American political calendar.

In this manner, the Syrian negotiation has become a metaphor for the entire peace process. As a negotiating challenge, the Palestinian-Israeli issue is even more complex than the Syrian. Once the dividing lines are drawn on the Syrian front, Syria should have no national claim on Israel. Tensions, if any, would be caused by Syria's support of the Arab national cause, and that will be largely defined by the Palestinian leadership.

But between Palestinians and Israelis, genuine reconciliation will be even more elusive. In fitting two groups with incompatible views of their historical patrimony into a territory 50 miles wide, no real reference points exist. The 1949 armistice lines, which were Israel's pre-June 1967 borders, were never accepted by any Arab state and most strenuously rejected by the PLO.

THESE BORDERS left Israel's two major cities connected by a corridor only nine miles wide and almost all Israeli population centers within mortar range. Though the PLO's rejection of the Jewish state has recently been abandoned (in a somewhat ambiguous formulation), significant groups within the PLO still advocate the 1947 partition lines, which would reduce pre-1967 Israel by half. Then there is Jerusalem, which Israel insists on retaining as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians claim part of it as theirs. Finally, return of Arab refugees, not just to the emerging Palestinian state but to Israel itself, remains open.

In recent negotiations, Israel seems to have gone further in returning West Bank territory than was thought possible (or safe) even a year ago. Therefore, some now argue that Jerusalem and the refugee issue should be set aside while boundaries and the sovereignty of the Palestinian state are settled. This would be a grave error.

The option of a more benign relationship is unlikely to survive if such disputes as Jerusalem and refugees are kept open, providing a permanent pretext for radicals to vitiate the permanence of the territorial settlement - already precarious because of the unchallenged presence of 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon shielding the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is sure to reject the agreement.

DESPITE all these qualifications, it is likely that agreements will be reached partly because the alternatives will, in the end, seem more dangerous. But when this happens, we must avoid euphoria based on the most favorable assumptions about the future. Whatever one's hopes for a new Middle East, at this point an agreement will represent a strategic interlude for the Syrians and most of the Palestinians, not a commitment to a new world order - at least not yet. They must not be tempted by strategic opportunities opened up by a change in the political or military balance of forces. The obligation to preserve and strengthen the conditions that sustained the peace process will be an imperative for both Israel and the United States if, after an agreement is reached, the peace is to last.

The United States must tread with great care. For the two sides, ultimate issues are involved: for Israel, survival regardless of its apparent military superiority); for the Arab side, dignity and evolution into a modern society. The disagreements are well enough understood by both parties; if a compromise formula is desired, they can surely ask us to mediate and we should help. But to reach that point, each side must confront its own reality and face the consequences of a deadlock. And that insight is more likely to come if America steps back until the parties decide that their future must break with the past.
Israel Report May/June 2000 {} Home Page
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