Ma'oz: Syria and Israel

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VOL. 26


No. 1
P. 104
Recent Books
Ma'oz: Syria and Israel

    The author, Moshe Ma'oz, is professor of Middle Eastern studies and director of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has been a Syria-watcher for many years and previously wrote an excellent book on President Hafiz al-Asad. That book, however, contained some errors attributable to Ma'oz's inability to gain first-hand knowledge through visits to Syria. Syria and Israel has few errors and is an even better book. It accurately and fully portrays the Syrian component of the often tempestuous Syrian-Israeli relationship. When he is not absolutely sure of something, Ma'oz is careful to preface his statements with "apparently" or "evidently" even though this is not always necessary. The book is thoroughly researched, and in the process new data have been uncovered from Israeli sources. There are copious footnotes advantageously placed at the end of each chapter.
    Ma'oz sets the stage by describing early contacts between Syrian and Jewish representatives before Israel was established. While recognizing that Arab nationalists fundamentally opposed the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, Ma'oz cites a number of instances where dialogue between Zionist and Arab leaders suggested the possibility of compromise. These involved such Arab Nationalist figures as Faris al-Khouri, Jamil Mardam, Faysal and Riad al-Solh-- each of whom was willing to cut a deal in order to advance overall Arab Nationalist objectives. Further on in the book, Ma'oz describes the peace initiatives of Husni Zaim in 1949 and subsequently of Adib Shishakli. In the latter regard, he mentions that Shishakli offered to settle some half a million Palestinian refugees in addition to those already in Syria.
    In treating Syrian-Israeli relations from 1948 onward, Ma'oz is generally balanced in his analysis. He notes that after the 1948 war Israel and Syria each felt threatened by the other and that Syria's fear of the Israeli military threat combined with Syrian military weaknesses contributed greatly to Syria's turning toward the Soviets in the mid-1950s. Regarding the periodic exchange of fire that occurred along Lake Tiberias in the early 1950s, Ma'oz quotes Israeli Brigadier Shalev (a member of the Syrian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission) as faulting his government for rejecting a compromise agreed to by the Syrians.
    Another example of Ma'oz's balanced approach is his criticism of the Israeli government for its massive attacks in 1955 against Syrian military positions (after having provoked the Syrians into opening fire) as ill-advised and counterproductive. And Ma'oz reports a senior Israeli officer as saying that the Israeli intervention against Syrian helicopters flying over Zahle, Lebanon in April 1981 resulted from false and exaggerated reports emanating from the Phalangist leader, Bashir Jumayyil.
    Similarly, Ma'oz is rightly critical of the radical Ba`thist regime in Syria for its aggressive actions against Israel in the late 1960s. Ma'oz contends that this provocative Syrian policy was a major cause of the June 1967 war. Ma'oz reveals that an Egyptian document was captured by the Israelis during the 1967 war stating that Egyptian troops had been moved into the Sinai to respond to an anticipated Israeli attack against Syria.
    In discussing the Asad period in Syria, Ma'oz indicates that Asad first expressed support for UN Security Council Resolution 242 as far back as February 1971 (three years before the Kissinger shuttle initiative). However, this did not stop Asad from hatching a plan of deception just before the outbreak of the 1973 war which lulled the Israelis into believing that the Syrian military buildup was merely defensive. (Meanwhile, Ma'oz points out that Sadat was deceiving Asad regarding Egyptian war objectives).
    Ma'oz describes at length Asad's earlier obsession with achieving military parity with Israel, at first as a prerequisite for a possible military confrontation and later to facilitate a suitable political settlement. Ma'oz also recognizes, as he did not in his Asad book, that Syria's strategic alliance with Iran was a liability-- intensifying Syria's isolation in the region (until its participation in Desert Storm.)
    The most currently relevant portion of the book is Ma'oz's detailed discussion of the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. He acknowledges that it was Asad's acceptance of the Bush-Baker initiative that induced Shamir to relent and agree to attend the Madrid Conference. Ma'oz makes the case that Asad has turned up the heat in the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon whenever he has felt that the peace talks were not going well.
    In tracing the evolution of the Israeli position on withdrawal from the Golan, Ma'oz states that "reportedly" in July 1994 Yitzhak Rabin passed to Asad through U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher a proposal that called for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. However, this seems doubtful since subsequent official Syrian statements do not reflect receipt of such a signal. In any case, two pages later, Ma'oz reports that shortly thereafter the Israeli government "would not commit itself to total withdrawal from the Golan" (p. 251).
    It appears that this continued to be the principal hang-up in negotiations conducted during the Rabin-Peres tenure. While Asad insisted on an Israeli commitment to full withdrawal as a precondition for reciprocal concessions on his part, the Israelis were evidently reluctant to do so until Asad made a convincing case that "full peace" would encompass diplomatic relations, open borders, and trade. The possibility of Asad's ever relenting from this "bottom line" seems remote. And even if or when an agreement is reached, Asad can be expected to move slowly toward normalization of relations. He recognizes that much time is needed to accustom his people to "doing business" with Israel. As Ma'oz points out, overcoming "the psychological barrier of mistrust, hate and fear" between the two peoples is a long-term process (p. 261). In any case, now that Netanyahu is in the Israeli saddle the prospect of movement on the Israeli Syrian peace front is exceedingly slim.
    There are a few of Ma'oz's observations that are inaccurate. At one point, he says that hostile Syrian statements against Israel are partly religious-inspired. In another instance, he refers to Syrian ideological antagonism toward Israel. Then he quotes an Israeli Foreign Office research memo which uses the expression "Arab-racial sensitivity" apropos attitudes toward Jews (p. 34). In fact, Syrians and other Arabs have no racial animosity toward Jews, and they regularly refer to Jews as their "cousins," the reverse of which is unusual. The Arab animus has been toward Zionism, not Judaism, and when occasionally (and rarely) criticisms of Jews pop up in Arab rhetoric, it is because Israel is a Jewish state.
    Omitted from the book is any reference to the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty which preceded-- and apparently was in anticipation of-- the Israeli seizure of the Golan Heights in 1967 in violation of the UN-declared cease-fire. The Israeli government disingenuously denied that the ship was American. Given Ma'oz's balanced approach, one might have expected him to mention this incident and with it the truth. But these inaccuracies do not detract from this very good book.

Talcott W. Seelye spent most of his thirty-two-year career as a U.S. foreign service officer living in or dealing with the Middle East. He has been ambassador to Tunisia and Syria and special emissary to Lebanon.