In an editorial Friday, the Jerusalem Post found encouragement in Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara’s speech at the White House Wednesday, despite his frostiness and his unexpected refusal to shake the Israeli prime minister’s hand. What the world saw, it said, was “a continuation of the coldest shoulder of the Middle East, that of Syria toward Israel.” But his words revealed welcome changes in Syria’s approach to peace. The most significant of these was his statement that the Syria-Israel conflict was about borders and not about Israel’s right to exist. “The words ‘border conflict,’ combined with the concept of peace based upon ‘international legitimacy’–a phrase Shara used twice–signifies a shift in conception that Israel has been seeking since the day of its birth,” the Post said. Shara also implied that a peace settlement might be a boon, as opposed to a setback, for Arab unity, and he gave a broader than expected description of what peace might be like. He spoke of a peace that would “open new horizons for totally new relations between peoples” and of “honorable competition in various domains–the political, cultural, scientific, and economic.” This, the Post said, suggested “a peace much broader and deeper than the exchange of ambassadors and other formalities.”
The Jerusalem Post’s lead Friday was a reported promise by Shara not to allow “any element in Lebanon to disrupt the peace process,” which was described by a senior Israeli official as the first clear indication that Syria is willing to rein in Hezbollah terrorists. In its main story from Washington Friday, Ha’aretz said Syria has called on the United States to remove Syria immediately from its list of regimes that sponsor terrorism. The paper said that, while the United States is demanding that Syria take action against Hezbollah first, “there are signs of Syrian crackdowns on terror groups currently based in Syria, as well as Hezbollah.” It also reported that, if Israel is satisfied with the progress of the peace negotiations due to begin Jan. 3, “Jewish organizations in the U.S. would become involved in the lobbying effort to get Syria removed from the list, clearing the way for Congressional-backed aid to Damascus.”
In an editorial, Ha’aretz said it is “clear that the negotiations have already reached an advanced stage” and that “[w]ith good will on both sides everything is resolvable.” But it said there is still the problem of the Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights, which Israel would return to Syria in a peace settlement. “The residents of the Golan were sent to build their homes opposite Syria with the concurrence of every government since 1967, and the roots they struck in the basalt soil are deeper than those of the settlers in Judea and Samaria,” the paper said. But it concluded that they will have to go, because “peace under reasonable conditions is more important than the desire to ease the pain of the settlers who are evacuated from their homes.” Another article in Ha’aretz Friday called for understanding by the Israelis of Syria’s difficult task of preparing Syrian public opinion for peace with Israel. If the settlement goes ahead, Syria “will be required within months to present the Syrian public with new facts completely contrary to the ideology preached to them for decades,” it said.
Al-Baath, the daily paper of Syria’s ruling party, said Thursday that Syria wouldn’t give up “a grain of its soil or a drop of its water” in its negotiations with Israel. “Syria fought honorably and it is now negotiating honorably,” the paper said. “It is doing all it can to attain an honorable peace which safeguards rights, dignity, and sovereignty. That is the only peace acceptable to our people, and that is the peace that will prove viable and stand the test of time.” The Pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi urged Syria to consider the implications of Shara’s vision of scientific, economic, and cultural competition with Israel. “One cannot engage in this competition without swiftly adopting and applying its ABC, starting with democracy, freedom to engage in political activity, freedom of expression, and economic liberalization,” the paper said. “Syria cannot compete with Israel in technology when access to the Internet is restricted to the children of senior officials, and the use of a mobile phone must be cleared by the intelligence services.”
Al-Quds al-Arabi was one of several Arab papers skeptical about the Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. Disputing Shara’s statement that a peace agreement would mean “the end of a history of wars and conflicts,” it noted that he failed to say a word about the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinians, and it added: “An end to the state of war between Arab governments and Israel does not mean an end to the state of war between the Arab people and the Jewish state. This is because the Arab governments signing up to peace were not democratically elected, nor did they conduct referendums on their peace moves.”
The Pan-Arab al-Hayat said the Palestinians had been wrong to believe that they could negotiate on their own with Israel. They had only themselves to blame for the fact that their peace negotiations were stalled, while Syria’s were picking up again. The semi-official Cairo newspaper al-Ahram said that Bill Clinton’s coup in getting the Syrians and Israelis together was “a cruel blow to the candidates–whether Democrat or Republican–fighting to succeed him.” Clinton wanted “to pour a bucket of freezing cold water” on the hopes of his potential successors, Al Gore and George W. Bush, who both want him to fail. “They want the kudos for themselves, especially since they have both already made promises in advance to the Israelis and the American Jewish lobby in order to secure support in the presidential election.”