January 13, 2000
By Yoav J. Tenembaum, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and political analyst
Although Syria consented to renew negotiations with Israel that had been stalled for years, the
Syrians’ conduct during the first round of these talks near Washington recently was extremely
lukewarm, to say the least.
The Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Shara, consistently refused to shake hands with Israel’s
prime minister, Ehud Barak. Under no circumstances did the Syrians allow themselves to be seen
in public sitting nearby, let alone next to, a member of the Israeli delegation. If that were not
enough, the members of the Syrian team were hardly caught even looking at their Israeli
This is, of course, no accident, but rather part of the carefully crafted policy of Syrian President
Hafez Assad. Its verbal manifestation has been provided by al-Shara’s speech on the White
House lawn, which, contrary to what had been agreed, surprised even US officials with its
The perception of the talks in Israel has been superbly summarized by Amos Oz, the
internationally renown Israeli writer and long-time peace activist, who said,
“The Syrians want to get the Golan and send us a receipt by fax.”
The blunt aloofness displayed by the Syrian negotiators toward their Israeli counterparts during
the negotiations in the United States highlights the towering figure of the late Egyptian President
Anwar Sadat and his singular diplomacy with Israel.
Following Sadat’s announcement that he would visit Jerusalem and speak before the Knesset in
November 1977, Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was moved to say that not since
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had there been a statesman of the stature of Sadat.
Kissinger may have been right. However, not even Bismarck was able to break the psychological
mold of a deep-rooted conflict in the way Sadat did.
Sadat was the only Arab leader who truly understood the collective psychology of the Israeli
people. When he bowed before an Israeli flag held by a soldier at the airport minutes after his
arrival in Israel, Sadat captured the imagination of Israelis in a way that no ordinary diplomatic
gesture ever could.
The most appealing of speeches could not have persuaded the people of Israel of Sadat’s good
intentions as effectively as his friendly exchange at the Knesset with the late Israeli Prime
Minister Golda Meir. She spoke to him “as a grandmother to a grandfather.”
He quipped, “I have always called her ‘the old lady’.”
In the eyes of Israelis, Sadat’s interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in Jerusalem, where
he laughed as he sat next to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, transformed the Arab-Israeli
conflict from an intractable dispute into a manageable disagreement far better than US shuttle
diplomacy ever could.
Not in vain did Sadat emphasize, while he was visiting Israel, that “90 percent of the Arab-Israeli
conflict is psychological.”
He exaggerated, but that is irrelevant. Sadat was not speaking as an objective observer.
What is important is that Sadat acted as though the conflict was 90 percent psychological.
Indeed, what he seemed to convey was that the Arab-Israeli (or the Egyptian-Israeli conflict, as
far as the Israeli public was concerned) is a diplomatic dispute bereft of hostility, in which Israel
would be openly, explicitly and willingly accepted in the region. Concessions would then be
easier for Israel’s leaders to make, with the Israeli people far less suspicious and more confident.
Sadat was no philo-semite. He was certainly not a Zionist. During World War II he supported the
Nazis and had scant regard for the fate of the Jews.
As president, Sadat was responsible for the surprise of the Yom Kippur War. His speech
in the Knesset was not seen by Israelis as anything but obdurate and hard-line. And here is
where Sadat triumphed.
For, in spite of his past and notwithstanding his speech, Israelis had learned to appreciate the
courage of his action and to admire the imagination entailed in his gesture. The same speech
anywhere else, in different circumstances, would have had little effect. In Jerusalem, at the
Knesset, it sounded like the first notes of a peace symphony.
Sadat understood not only the collective psychology of Israelis as no other Arab leader did, but
also the political culture of a democratic society in a way unmatched by his Arab colleagues. He
comprehended the singular importance of public opinion in the decision-making process of a
He realized that by visiting Jerusalem he would capture the hearts of the people and thus
greatly facilitate the achievement of his diplomatic objectives.
His aim was twofold. He knew that by capturing Israeli public opinion he would elicit the support
of the Americans and their Congress. He would then pave the way for Egypt to get the Sinai
peninsula and a more comprehensive settlement, while creating the basis for a special
relationship between Egypt and the United States.
Sadat’s thinking was as strategic in concept as it was creative in form.
Syria’s Assad is undoubtedly no Sadat. Indeed, Assad seems to follow a diplomatic code of
conduct that is the exact opposite of Sadat’s. If he continues in this way, Assad may get the
exact opposite of what Sadat got.
It works both ways. If Assad is sincerely interested in peace with Israel, he should convey it to
his own people, too, as Sadat did. Ignoring the Israelis hardly serves that purpose.
Of course, if Assad’s aim is to thwart any chance of a peace deal being popularly accepted in
Israel, then his behavior is most certainly correct.