LONDON (Sep. 13)
In a sharp retreat from earlier expressions of optimism, Damascus has lashed out at Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, warning that he would bear the blame if current peace efforts founder and hinting that Israel’s military superiority might not last forever.
At the same time, Barak was speaking more enthusiastically than ever about his hopes for peace and his admiration for Syrian President Hafez Assad.
He told the London Jewish Chronicle, in an interview published last Friday, that he believes peace with Syria would strengthen Israel.
Barak went on to describe Assad as “a man of his word, a man of honor, of dignity. He is a very strong leader.”
In the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement signed earlier this month in Egypt, however, Damascus was in no mood to return the compliments.
Instead, Syria unleashed a barrage of criticism directed at Israel via the editor of the government-controlled daily al-Ba’ath, Turki Sakr, who is widely regarded as closely reflecting the positions of the regime.
While questioning Barak’s integrity in a Sept. 9 article, he made veiled threats about the fallibility of Israel’s military superiority.
Syria is demanding, as it has since the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, that Israel agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines the two sides occupied at the start of the 1967 Six Day War as a precondition to negotiations over issues of peace and security.
Sakr challenged Barak to admit that Israel had deposited a document with the U.S. State Department in which, he said, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had undertaken to withdraw to the June 4, 1967, lines on the Golan Heights.
Syria wants Barak “to have the courage to recognize — not in secret, but publicly — that the document exists and that it was deposited with the State Department, thereby opening the way for a resumption of peace negotiations on the Syrian track.”
Damascus, he continued, would not permit any ambiguity on this point: “For Syria, the question of land is not negotiable, and there can be no retraction of the agreement expressed in the deposited document.”
According to Itamar Rabinovich, former head of Israel’s negotiating team with Syria and now president of Tel Aviv University, Israel had asked the Syrians hypothetically about the nature of peace and security arrangements it envisaged if Israel were to agree to withdraw to the 1967 lines.
But this, said Rabinovich, did not constitute an offer or a negotiating position.
Sakr, however, insisted: “Withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, line has become a universally accepted principle and can in no way be renegotiated. Syrian land is not a matter of real estate that can be bought or sold under any circumstances.”
Sakr added that if Barak “is betting on arrogance, expansionism and aggression, he should know that such gambles never paid off in the past.”
“He should also know that time is not standing still for Israel’s military supremacy. Or does he have an insurance policy for that supremacy?” he asked.
Analysts believe that the hostility and veiled threats from Damascus is a sign of frustration that the peace process with the Palestinians is back on track – - and concern that a permanent settlement with the Palestinians will erode Syria’s negotiating position, leaving it isolated, vulnerable and exposed.