Syria sees hope for peace deal with Israel

Middle East: Foreign minister warns that only a "strong" agreement can end decades of enmity
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"Peres is now talking about the comprehensiveness of peace in the region. This is the first time the Israelis say publicly that they want a comprehensive peace. I think this is an important sign."

Farouk al-Sharaa is choosing his words with infinite care, sometimes allowing seconds to slip by between nouns and verbs as he negotiates the thickets and brambles of the Syrian-Israeli talks. The Syrian foreign minister is anxious that his sentences should not be distorted for the benefit of either side in the Israeli elections; which may be why he adds a little codicil about the importance of Israel's apparent desire for a comprehensive peace: "It's a bit late," he says. "It should have been adopted a long time ago, before the Arabs took different routes in the peace process."

I didn't ask whom Mr Sharaa wishes to win the Israeli elections, but I could guess. Both Syria and Israel appear to have concluded that there will be no peace treaty before the poll. But the peace which Syria was offering, according to Mr Sharaa, would be in Israel's interest. "It should give every side its rights - in our case, peace should return to us all the Syrian Golan to the 4 June 1967 lines; and we consider that for a peace to be comprehensive, it has to include Lebanon as well. Of course, it's difficult to speak about the others' point of view, especially when they are adversaries.

"But I think the peace we are talking about is also in the interest of the Israelis. Politically speaking, they would gain acceptance in the region and the world at large, a thing they never enjoyed before . . . And Israel, after peace, would rid itself of a disturbed conscience, the result of its continuous occupation, the oppression of the Palestinians and the shelling of south Lebanese villages.

"What is more important . . . is that the Israelis cannot win in the long run if they continue in a state of war with the Arabs, no matter how strong they are or will be . . . The Arabs are not only large in numbers and possess an immense potential, but they have a history, heritage and culture that will eventually make them victorious if wars are imposed on them."

This - though I did not say so to Mr Sharaa - is what journalists cruelly refer to as the Saladin theory of history: since the Arabs conquered the Crusaders, so they must inevitably win against Israel. "Perhaps", one always feels like saying. Perhaps. But it was clear that the foreign minister was in optimistic mode, even if he acknowledged that the Arabs have negotiated separately with Israel. Hasn't Syria been weakened by this?

"Many people might think so. But this is not the reality. If we want peace, we are stronger now than before. Yes, if we didn't want peace, we would have been weakened . . . But I have often said - and President Assad has many times said - that we are committed to peace . . . And if we don't sign a peace agreement, there will be no peace in the region."

Ever since President Sadat of Egypt signed a separate peace, the Syrians have understood the nature of Israel's policy towards the Arabs: divide and rule; although these, of course, are not Mr Sharaa's words. "Israel does not believe in negotiating with the Arab parties simultaneously or collectively," he says. "They want to single out each Arab side. But we think this approach is wasting time . . . And it also has negative aspects. For example, Israel thinks it has reached a peace agreement with Jordan. For Jordan, thisagreement was the outcome of 25 or 30 years of tacit, underground relations between the regime in Jordan and the Israeli leadership. So you can expect an agreement totally different from one that can be reached between Syria and Israel, where there are no secret contacts. The Israelis may say, 'Well, we want with Syria something similar to the agreement with Jordan.' But this is neither objective nor realistic. It's like a son who asks his mother to find him a bride but wants the bride to love him as though she has known him for 20 years."

Mr Sharaa waits to see if his metaphor has been understood. Israel wants a promise of full diplomatic and trade relations the moment a treaty is signed. Syria has promised total peace in return for total withdrawal but does not believe that enemies can become trusted friends overnight. "The problem for Syria is the real intention of the Israelis. Do they really want to live in peace? Or do they want to keep on living by the sword?"

But is it not true that Israel and the West would prefer to see peace made by a weak rather than a strong Syria? Is there not, I suggested wickedly, a requirement for those who wish to make peace with Israel to be weak? Mr Sharaa replied: "Is there an international interest . . . to see Syria weaker and have a weak peace in the region? Syria's position [for a comprehensive settlement] will make a strong peace in the region - which is in Israel's interest as well. If we made agreements similar to Jordan and the Palestinians, the region will never see stability. Many underground forces would oppose it. They might rule in 10 years and all these agreements will be thrown into the dustbin."

Mr Sharaa did not once mention the word "Islamists", but there seemed no doubt about who the "underground forces" might be.