Al-Hewar Center Presents Dr. Murhaf Jouejati
A Syrian Perspective on the Syrian-Israeli Track

[On February 23, 2000, Syrian foreign policy analyst Dr. Murhaf Jouejati spoke at Al-Hewar Center in Metropolitan Washington DC about "A Syrian's Perspective on the Syrian-Israeli Track."  His presentation was followed by an informative dialogue with the audience.  The following is Dr. Jouejati's presentation:]

First, let me preface my presentation by saying that my task as a student of Syrian politics is not to defend or promote Syrian foreign policy, but to explain it, hopefully in a coherent and concise fashion.

Having said that, my presentation is based on questions that were recently put to me in Washington and New York by American supporters of Israel, questions that I relayed to senior Syrian officials in Damascus, and to which they responded. What I will say below summarizes their responses, but is in no way authoritative.

Parenthetically, the centerpiece of Syrian foreign policy during the past three decades has been the recovery of the Arab territories that Israel occupied in the 1967 War. This policy goes hand-in-hand with UN land-for-peace Resolutions 242 and 338. It is within this context that Syria accepted the US invitation to the Madrid conference, which laid the basis for the Middle East Peace Process.

QUESTION: Why should Israel make the commitment to withdraw from the strategic Golan Heights before it knows what it will get in return in terms of normalization and security?

ANSWER: For relations to be normalized, the conflict must first be stabilized. Put differently, in the absence of a mutual agreement on the extent of Israelís withdrawal, negotiations over normalization of relations, security arrangements, and water become an exercise in futility. The horse pulls the cart, not the other way around.

Besides, Syria needs an Israeli commitment because of Israelís history of reneging on its promises.

QUESTION: Why must Israel withdraw to the June 4 lines and to the 1923 international borders?

ANSWER: First, Syria does not recognize the 1923 borders. The British and the French drew these, secretly. Syria was not consulted. On the other hand, the June 4 lines were drawn by Syria.

Second, Israel occupied the Golan from the June 4 lines, not from the 1923 lines. For Israel to get away with a withdrawal to the 1923 lines only would be tantamount to rewarding aggression. Israelís assault of the Golan is naked aggression. It flies in the face of the UN Charter, which defines the acquisition of territory by war as "inadmissible."

In addition, a lasting peace is one that is equitable, in other words, one in which there is no victor and vanquished. An Israeli withdrawal to the 1923 lines only falls short of the land component of the land-for-peace equation. It would make Syrians feel they got less than is rightfully theirs Ė in other words, most Syrians would feel they got a raw deal. As a consequence, peace with Israel would not be durable.

Moreover, President Assad must show his people that he made an honorable peace in which Syria recovers all the Golan, not just parts of it.

QUESTION: Israel is militarily superior and is able to defeat any combination of Arab military power. Why should Israel care whether it is at peace with Syria or not?

ANSWER: As we understand it, what Israel craves for most is normalcy in our region. Syria is Israelís key to normalcy. While Israel may have a peace treaty with this or that Arab country, peace with Syria means peace with all the Arabs.

QUESTION: Why should Israel trust Assad?

ANSWER: Since the 1974 disengagement of forces along the Golan front, not a single shot has been fired across the lines. President Assad has kept scrupulously to the spirit and the letter of the US-brokered agreement.

Besides, Israel has a large stockpile of nuclear weaponry. In addition, the security arrangements that will be put in place as a result of peace will provide Israel with sufficient early warning.

QUESTION: Can Israel trust Syria after Assad?

ANSWER: Peace, if equitable, is irreversible. If Israel abides by those things it has to do, peace will be institutionalized.

QUESTION: Why did the Syrian Foreign Minister not shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Barak at the White House ceremony on December 15?

ANSWER: Syria rejects the Israeli accusation that Syria has not shown goodwill. Syria has shown goodwill on several occasions:

First, President Assad was the first Middle East leader to accept the US invitation to the Madrid conference, which laid the basis for the entire peace process. Israel, which at first rejected that invitation, accepted it only when Syria did. Without Syriaís acceptance, there would not have been a peace process altogether.

Second, President Assad declared peace with Israel to be Syriaís strategic option.

Third, Syria agreed to hold talks along separate tracks Ė in effect bilateral talks, thereby recognizing de facto Israelís right to live within secure and recognized boundaries.

Fourth, Syria recognized Israelís security concerns.

Fifth, it was Israel, not Syria that interrupted the talks in February 1996.

Sixth, in the Syrian Foreign Ministerís statement at the Rose Lawn of the White House in December 1999, Mr. Shara spoke of, among others, Israelís psychological fear; scientific, economic, and cultural cooperation between Syria and Israel; a dialogue of civilizations, as opposed to a clash of civilizations.

One must add these points that a measure of Syrian goodwill may be discerned by examining the "Draft Framework for Peace" presented by the Clinton Administration to Israel and Syria, as leaked by the Israeli press. It reveals much flexibility in the Syrian position on the issues of normalization of relations (e.g. the establishment of full diplomatic relations and the unimpeded flow of people, goods, and services); security arrangements (e.g. limitation of forces; early warning capabilities, including an early warning ground station on Mount Hermon operated by the US and France); and water (e.g. to establish mutually agreeable arrangements with respect to water quantities and quality from the surface and underground waters from which Israeli forces will withdraw.

On the other hand, Barak, despite his flattering words to President Assad, is still debating the land component of the land-for-peace equation. Mr. Barak says one thing and does another. Although Syrians distinguish between him and Mr. Netanyahu, they now call the Israeli Prime Minister "Barakyahu."

The impression I got from the Syrian respondents was a sense of deep disappointment in the recent talks at Shepherdstown. Syrians perceive Israel as not being serious about peace. From a Syrian perspective, had Israel been serious, it would have committed itself to a total withdrawal from the Golan. The general consensus was that once Israel makes that commitment, all outstanding issues could be resolved.

More generally, Syrians are highly sensitive and concerned about maintaining their national dignity. Syrians, and most Arabs, would see any solution that does not include a total Israeli withdrawal, as undignified. The intensity of this sentiment is matched only by the sense of Jewish fear that I felt among the pro-Israeli questioners. This leads me to conclude that it is perhaps when Israel understands the depth of Syrian and Arab pride.

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