Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Analysts Skeptical About Report Syria is Ready to Recognize Israel

February 14, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Syria’s reported offer Wednesday to recognize Israel’s right to exist as part of a Middle East peace settlement is being greeted by foreign policy analysts with interest tempered by skepticism over what, if anything, it actually means.

Israeli officials reacted cautiously to reports of the offer, and the Israeli Consulate here issued a short statement reiterating Israel’s desire to enter into “direct, bilateral, unconditional” negotiations with its Arab neighbors.

“We have in the past extended our hand for peace and normalization to Syria, as to any other Arab country, since Israel was established in 1948,” said Yuval Rotem, the consulate spokesman.

Syria’s proposal, announced by German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher after a meeting Wednesday with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus, specifically refers to Israel recognizing the Palestinians’ right to self-determination as a condition for Syrian recognition of Israel.

Middle East experts here say the proposal, if true, could be a sign of the softening of the normally tense Israeli-Syrian relations.

Syrian President Hafez Assad has been one of the Jewish state’s staunchest enemies, and before the Persian Gulf war started, Syria was considered by the United States and others to be possibly the leading exporter of terrorism.

Since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Syria has linked up with the United States to fight Iraqi aggression, in the process shedding some of its negative image and perhaps becoming more open to U.S. influence, analysts said.


According to Patrick Clawson, author of the study “Syria’s Unaffordable Ambitions,” Syria may have made this offer with an eye toward halting the arms race with Israel and using some of its new financial aid for other purposes. Like many of the countries taking part in the multinational effort to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, Syria has received financial aid promises from Saudi Arabia.

Clawson also asked whether in exchange for softening its position toward Israel, Syria expected to be given a freer hand in its intervention in Lebanon, as well as being treated as a major player in the region.

“Still, it’s only a small step forward, because the offer includes first an overall settlement for the Palestinians,” said Clawson, who is editor of Orbis, a journal published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Other analysts pointed out that with the diminished Soviet role in the region, Syria must look for a new supporter for weapons and economic aid. If the Soviet Union’s place is to be taken by the United States, then it is to Assad’s advantage to appear more moderate.

“This is a chance for Syria to make inroads with the United States, but I think it’s really a little early to come to any definitive decisions until we know more about the offer,” said Ken Jacobson, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

Still, there have been other signs of a softening of Syria’s position toward Israel. Last June, Clawson said, there were credible rumors floating around of Syrian interest in accepting a demilitarized Golan Heights from Israel in exchange for a peace treaty. Israel captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 war and has since annexed it.

A few days ago, Secretary of State James Baker suggested to Israel’s ambassador to the United States that Israel consider demilitarizing the Golan Heights and putting it under U.N. or U.S supervision. Israeli officials have not formally responded to this suggestion.


An Israeli official who did not want to be identified questioned whether Syrian officials would later deny Genscher’s report, and he also asked why Genscher should have been the first to release the information.

“We are trying to be cautious about this statement, because we are used to having this kind of statement come from foreign ministers during private talks, which has later been contradicted by public statement,” the Israeli said.

American Jewish organizational leaders were also skeptical.

“We have seen these games before, so it’s hard to know where the Syrians stand,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “So we shouldn’t read too much into it at this stage.”

If Assad is “ready to negotiate, let him come directly with a proposal,” Hoenlein said.

Some analysts pointed out that Syria’s offer is not unlike earlier Israeli offers — only turned on its head. Israel has always offered direct negotiations before settling the Palestinian question, while Syria wants the reverse.

Israeli officials added that recent statements out of Syria did not point to a radical shift in the country’s position toward Israel.

A Syrian official attending the United Nations Human Rights Commission meetings in Geneva last Friday publicly resurrected the ancient blood libel against Jews.

“In the broader sense, the rhetoric coming out of Syria has been as hostile to Israel as ever before, and one doesn’t come to any firm feelings that the Syrians have made any radical changes,” said Jacobson of ADL.

Recommended from JTA