Sunday marked the beginning of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “Union for the Mediterranean.” What’s interesting about this otherwise dry and distilled meeting is the dynamic between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Late last week there were rumors flying around that a public handshake might take place between the two, and (gasp!) perhaps even a direct meeting! But anyone who knows anything about Middle Eastern politics knew that that was quite unlikely to happen.
The closest that I have seen the two come to any kind of formal meeting or staged run-in was a picture snapped during France’s annual Bastille Day Parade where Olmert can be seen walking past Assad, who is talking to Qatar’s Emir Khalifa al-Thani. However, when Prime Minister Olmert was giving a speech to the forum the day before, President Assad happened to be absent from the room. Coincidence? I think not. So what does this mean?
First, everyone knows that Israel and Syria have been conducting indirect peace talks via Turkey for a little over a month. However, what puzzles me the most is that though the world understands that Assad isn’t going to directly hold talks with Olmert, can’t he at least sit through the man’s speech? He is, after all, trying to negotiate a peace agreement with him. Are things so bad that he can’t bear to hear what Olmert has to say?
If I were an Israeli politician, this would be a clear sign to me that in fact the Syrian regime is not serious about any form of peace talk. If a friend says to me, “I know Jon punched you in the face, but seriously, he is a good guy”, how can I ever believe that he is a good guy? He punched me in the face! The same follows for President Assad. We hear that he wants to make peace, but his actions say otherwise — just a little food for thought.
I understand what you’re saying, Rob. The lack of overt enthusiasm for peace that we sometimes see in the Arab world can be difficult to bear. But I’d suggest that you remember that Israel (and the new Yishuv before that)was originally regarded by the Arab world as an unwanted and completely unacceptable manifestation of Western (“Crusader”)imperialism in the Middle East.
Seen in this light, the growing (if begrudging) Arab acceptance of Israel – starting with Egypt in the late ’70s, continuing to the PLO and Jordan and now to Syria and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania and others – is what’s more important to stress than the lack of warmth their leaders are displaying.
For Syria, making peace with Israel involves climbing down a tall ideological tree. The climb-down will come gradually, not all at once. Supporters of Israel must remember that peace with Syria is, first and foremost, a geopolitical Israeli interest. If we get caught up too much in the smiles and handshakes, we run the risk of taking our eyes off the real prize.