All Writings
January 9, 2000

Why Israel Must Seek Peace Of Reconciliation With Syria

Syria's reluctance to offer Israel immediate peace of reconciliation in exchange for full withdrawal is one of the stumbling blocks that has impeded progress in the current negotiations. Indeed, from the Israeli vantage point, only a warm peace of reconciliation, in which the Israeli and the Syrian people develop vested interests, can endure.

Although the Golan is perceived to be critical to Israel's national security, the issue for most Israelis is not whether Syria should repossess it, rather, how to compensate for the loss of the Golan when lingering mutual lack of trust has characterized Israeli-Syrian relations for the past two generations. For this reason, in addition to establishing the most iron-clad security arrangement, the Israeli public expects its leaders to bring home full peace of reconciliation (translated to Sulh in Arabic, which means warm, friendly and neighborly relations) including tourism, trade, cultural and academic exchanges, information sharing, and joint projects etc., in exchange for the Golan.

Syria undoubtedly has come a long way since the early nineties. When I first visited Damascus in 1994, I was told repeatedly by Syrian officials that reconciliation with Israel was not acceptable and that it should not be a requirement for peace. The Syrian public, they argued, was not ready to bury the hatchet and forget and forgive. Cessation of hostilities (translated to Salam in Arabic) was all that Syria was willing to offer for full withdrawal. Since then, much has changed in the Syrian attitude: they have come to understand the need for gradual normalization, but not the urgency, the scope and the importance of reconciliation.

The Israelis are weary and even suspicious of a cold peace. They view the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, for example, as a mere secession of hostilities in which neither the Israeli nor the Egyptian public has developed vested interests. The Egyptian people are not better off today than they were 20 years ago when the peace agreement was signed. Egyptian trade unions, academicians, professional organizations and the press remain, by-and-large, highly critical of Israel. The Israelis wonder why the Egyptian government is investing so heavily in modernizing the military with the latest airplanes, tanks, artillery and missiles when the only real threat to the regime is internal posed by the Islamic Group. Of course, even a cold peace is preferred over open hostilities. But then, given the Egyptian military buildup and the continuing dismal socio-economic conditions, Egypt remains a military threat to Israel. It is not inconceivable that an anti-Israeli leader could rise and rally the public against Israel, making it the scapegoat to consolidate his power.

This is not the kind of peace Israel seeks from Syria. To disarm the Israeli opposition, convert the sceptics, and mobilize the public support he needs, Prime Minster Barak must deliver not only air-tight security arrangements for the return of the Golan, but the promise of normal and warm peace. The normalization process must begin immediately upon the signing of the peace agreement, and reciprocal measures should continue, with both the Israeli and the Syrian public fully engaged in the process. For example, at the conclusion of the first Israeli phased withdrawal, an exchange of Israeli and Syrian missions to study each others' business and trade practices can take place. This can be followed by academic missions, cultural exchanges, technical exchanges, etc. The idea is that there should be a correlation between each Israeli phased withdrawal and the pace of normalization. Thus, once the last Israeli soldier is withdrawn and the Golan's settlers are relocated, full diplomatic relations are established. Moreover, the Syrian government should portray normalization of relations to its public, not as a gift or a concession to Israel, but as a mutual prerequisite to give substance and durability to peace. This is particularly important because, unlike the situation with Egypt where the Sinai desert provides a 125 mile buffer with Israel, the Golan under Syrian control will provide a military and strategic advantage to Syria.

While the normalization process gets underway in earnest, one other critical aspect of reconciliation must take place. Prominent Israeli and Syrian intellectuals – historians, writers, philosophers – should review past and present mutual grievances. It is particularly important that they establish what provoked the cross border hostilities between Israel and Syria from 1948 till 1967, and what precipitated the Six Day War in 1967. Probably the findings will place equal blame on both sides. History books in Syria and Israel should reflect the same story and tell the truth. This is the kind of national soul-searching and healing that will be necessary to unburden the next generations of Israelis and Syrians of the mistakes and misperception of their elders, mistakes that have poisoned the political atmosphere and perpetuated a deep sense of mutual hatred and distrust. A nation that refuses to face up to its past and restore historic integrity to the events in question, cannot build a future with the nation affected by these events on a new basis of mutual trust and confidence.

Deep in their hearts, the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Syrians want peace. They have been confused and at times deliberately misled about the nature of the conflict and its true implications to Israel's national security and Syria's national requirement and honor. The real dispute today is not about territory but about the kind of relations these two countries must forge and how peace will affect the roles they will play in the newly emerging Middle East.

If they want peace to last, they must embrace "peace of reconciliation" in all of its aspects. Neither the Israeli nor the Syrian public will forgive their leaders if they squander this historic opportunity and plunge the Middle East into a new cycle of violence and destruction instead of leading it to a prosperous peace with dignity.