Confusion over Assad's promise of 'normality'

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THE meeting between President Assad of Syria and Bill Clinton in Geneva on 16 January was cast as a breakthrough in the search for Middle East peace. For the first time, according to the American spin- doctors whose job it is to explain what is said at press conferences and to fill in what is not said, Mr Assad made the key concession, uttering the crucial words that he wanted 'normal' peaceful relations with Israel.

'Normal', we were told, was the one word the Israelis wanted to hear. It was what, after 45 years of hostilities, they aspired to. Mr Clinton in his turn endorsed Mr Assad's commitment to this goal. 'President Assad, as you have just heard, shares this objective: not just an end to war, but the establishment of real and comprehensive peace with Israel that will ensure normal, peaceful relations among good neighbours,' he said.

The only trouble is, Mr Assad never said it. The translator put those words in his mouth.

The expression he used in Arabic was alaqaat silmin jiddiyatin ('serious, peaceful relations'). And not with Israel but 'between all in the region'. The history of Middle East diplomacy is littered with misunderstandings, not only about the interpretation of those key UN resolutions 181, 242, 338 and 425, but about the real meanings of words. Throughout this century, Orientalists in the chanceries of foreign embassies and research analysts in foreign ministries, have subjected words to intense scrutiny in the search for hidden meanings. A whole body of scholarship has arisen over whether the Palestinians were offered by the British a homeland or a state, depending on different weight given in Egyptian and Levantine Arabic to the words watan and qawm.

Arabs, however, insist that Mr Assad's offer of 'serious, peaceful relations' is actually stronger than normalisation. It promises more in terms of open borders and free trade, and the opening of embassies in their respective capitals. They point out that the Arabic word for normalisation suggests a reversal to a former state of good relations or cordiality - something that never existed between Israel and Syria. More significantly they point out that Mr Assad made his intentions clear. 'We are ready to sign peace now,' he said unequivocally.

Meanwhile, Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, left yesterday for talks in Switzerland over the weekend with the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat. Before his departure Mr Peres warned that much work remained to be done before Palestinian self- rule could start. 'Although I am generally an optimist I cannot promise that an accord will be reached in Davos,' he said. 'We still have a lot of work to do, and a lot to consider.'

There have been signs of progress on other fronts. Israel is encouraged by more apparent willingness by King Hussein of Jordan to meet Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, if the meeting would advance the peace process. And the Qatari authorities have confirmed they have been discussing with Israel a possible natural-gas deal - further indication that the Arab boycott of Israel is being loosened.