Why the summit was a failure
By Nitzan Horowitz (Haaretz) 28/3/2000
WASHINGTON - If and when peace talks between Syria and Israel resume, the representatives of the countries participating in those talks should bear in mind that the Syrian image has not been enhanced at Shepherdstown, at Geneva or in the interval between those two summit meetings.Although no one has any desire to humiliate Syria, even those top-ranking officials of the Washington administration and members of both houses of the U.S. Congress who support extending American aid to Syria within the context of a peace treaty with Israel (and there are not too many people who think like that today in the American capital) are finding it difficult to say anything nice about Syrian President Hafez Assad. In the past they used to refer to him as a stable leader. Now even that phrase is hard for them to utter.
Right now, Fidel Castro enjoys warmer support here. Castro's romantic halo still shines - although faintly these days. The only reaction that Assad inspires in American hearts is something akin to the reaction that can be seen on U.S. President Bill Clinton's face whenever he is served broccoli.
The leaders of the central Jewish organizations in America that are committed to supporting Prime Minister Ehud Barak and defending the idea of American aid to Syria are going through the motions - but with a blatant frown of disgust. A large group of politicians and experts here - principally right-wingers - is claiming that Assad is interested only in the "peace process" but not in peace itself, because the process offers him major advantages without forcing him to change the character of his regime.
The adherents of this school of thought argue that whenever the peace process was on the verge of a breakthrough, Assad always managed to find some excuse to cause a logjam and then proceeded to obtain concessions in return for his agreement to resume talks with the Israelis. Geneva provides additional proof for this hypothesis.Syria complains about this attitude, but is also doing everything possible to reinforce it.
This fact has a direct bearing on the prospects of renewing the negotiations because their outcome will be largely dependent on the nature of the peace package that the Americans will provide. In the meantime, the only thing that Uncle Sam would like to provide Assad with is a one-way ticket to a mausoleum.
The renewal of the talks between Syria and Israel is always a somewhat depressing event for the Syrians. The days that the members of the Syrian delegation spent in the picturesque town of Shepherdstown were almost unendurable in their eyes.
"You are actually in a war situation," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara explained in A-Safir on February 20, "and it might well be that a military confrontation is easier than this kind of situation ... Here you are confronting a strong enemy that is more or less on its home turf ... You are saying that the members of the American delegation are, for the most part, because of their loyalties and their connections, very sympathetic toward - what do you call that party - the Likud? Possibly.
"The positions of some of the American delegates might even be considered more hawkish than those of the Israelis.
"Were it not for the fact that we have decided to exercise the utmost caution, we would come out with the declaration that the entire American delegation is Jewish. Of course, we have nothing against the religious affiliation of any of the members of the American administration; however, the people from the State Department treat us with considerable rudeness. I don't think I would be exaggerating if I were to say that some of them are unofficial members of the Israeli delegation."
The Syrians' sense that everyone is against them over here is genuine. It is not too hard to imagine what a Syrian representative in America must feel when a leading member of the U.S. Congress declares that Syria is a terrorist state and that its leader is a mass murderer. Syria camouflages its feelings of inferiority with a vicious demeanor that only aggravates the hostility toward their country.
This point is especially visible in Syrian attitudes toward the Jews. Although they are the traditional locomotive that drags along the heavy freight train of American foreign aid, Assad's behavior toward them is certainly undiplomatic, to say the least.
The Holocaust-denial statements emanating from Syria have inflicted heavy damage on the image of Assad's homeland. Even leading doves admit that the utterances being made in Damascus will seriously hamper future efforts to promote concessions toward Syria and to mobilize support for foreign assistance to that country. Sometimes Syria gives the distinct impression that it simply does not understand how things are done in America and that it thinks that it can get its way by continuing to be intransigent. Syria refuses to recognize that Jewish influence in a democratic society like America is a legitimate fact of life.
In fact, Damascus relates to the Jews in tones that border on anti-Semitism. Syria's determination to swim against the current of American norms is congruent with its tendency to regard surveys and articles in the Israeli press as part of a giant conspiracy and to interpret Israeli demands for friendly public gestures - such as a handshake - as an attempt to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Or, as Shara puts it, merely an attempt "to secure a nice photo opportunity at our expense."
All of the above constitutes the packaging of the major obstacle that has prevented any breakthrough in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks. That obstacle is Damascus's adamant refusal to accept Israel's concept of peace, namely, open borders and full diplomatic, economic and cultural relations.
It is important to note that the shoreline of the Kinneret did not turn the Geneva summit into a disaster. The chief item on that summit's agenda was the entire picture of peace between Syria and Israel. Washington fears that the idea of a real peace with Israel is something that Syria - at least, Assad's Syria - simply cannot swallow.