By Henry Kissinger
July 6, 2000
For the two sides, ultimate issues are involved: for Israel, survival regardless of
its apparent military superiority; for the Arab side, dignity and evolution into a
modern society. To foster peace between Israel and its neighbors America must
The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad has brought the spotlight back on
the Middle East peace process. President Bill Clinton has reaffirmed his
confidence in Assad’s statement to him in 1993, embracing a strategy for
peace, and has expressed the hope that Assad’s son and successor, Bashar,
will complete the process.
The impact on the Palestinian negotiations is widely assessed as
positive. Visits to the area by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Dennis
Ross, the State Department’s permanent mediator, portend another American
push for final agreement.
But, as before, one piece of the puzzle was not discussed: the clashing
concepts of peace held in America and Israel on the one hand, and among the
Syrian and Palestinian leaders on the other.
The Clinton administration – and indeed most Americans – consider a
peace treaty a terminal point that defines not only an end of hostilities but a
change of heart. Tensions are expected to dissolve into coexistence and
animosities of a century into a pattern of cooperation.
This vision is even more strongly held in Israel. Living for most of its history
within borders not recognized by the outside world, beset by terrorists and bled
in three major wars and innumerable small-scale clashes, Israel confronts a
paradox: on the one hand, it towers over its neighbors militarily; on the other, it
is exhausted by its sacrifices and ambiguous status.
Seeking surcease, many Israelis, probably a majority, have endowed
peace with the mythic attributes of a blissful state of harmony.
It is as if the Jewish messianic tradition has prevailed over the experience of
centuries of persecution and the lesson that few peace settlements have ever
brought about such an emotional reversal.
Israel, in Assad’s view – and that of most Palestinian leaders – was an
illegitimate creation inspired, as he said to me once, “by imperialists in
compensation for crimes committed in another continent, by another religion.”
He was, in the end, prepared to acquiesce in Israel’s existence for want of a
better alternative. Perhaps the new technology and global economics will, in
time, turn grudging acceptance into long-term harmony. But nothing in Assad’s
attitude, or of many Palestinian leaders, justifies this expectation for the
As for Assad, anyone who dominated Syria for 30 years – when, in the previous
decade and a half, no Syrian leader had managed to stay in office for as long as
a year – must have done so by understanding Syria’s current realities. As a
member of the Alawite minority, representing less than 13 percent of the Syrian
population, Assad learned to combine caution and enormous tactical skill with
great ruthlessness, as documented in the 1982 destruction of the rebellious city
Assad’s nationalism appealed to the Sunni majority, which felt betrayed by the
Western powers after having led a rebellion against Turkey during World War I
and then again, even more grievously, with the establishment of Israel after
World War II.
Unlike his great contemporary, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Assad did not see
himself as the representative of a society harking back over millennia and
therefore capable of transcending transient hatreds by a grand gesture. Instead,
Assad’s nationalism was defined by a militancy asserted every hour of every
day. As the aggrieved party, he saw no need for generous gestures. His
negotiating style emphasized recalcitrance and tough bargaining rather than
currying favor with America. Syrian nationalism was put forward not on behalf
of Syria as a nation, but of Pan-Arabism, enabling Assad to resist Egyptian (or
Iraqi) claims to regional leadership and assert his own.
In executing his design, Assad, ever conscious of his narrow base, rarely
moved ahead of his domestic consensus or, when he did, shaped it so indirectly
that he could not be isolated in the aftermath. When I negotiated with him for
35 consecutive days in 1974 over the only Syrian-Israeli agreement now in
existence, the daily ritual was unvarying: first, a lengthy private meeting with
Assad, followed by a briefing of the leading generals and concluding with yet
another briefing including civilian ministers – the entire process frequently
extending over eight hours and skillfully steered by Assad toward his preferred
When Assad finally announced his commitment to “peace,” it reflected a new
reality, not conversion to the American, much less the Israeli, definition of that
term. The Soviet Union, Syria’s principal arms supplier, had disintegrated.
America, after the Gulf War, bestrode the Middle East.
Israel had made peace with Egypt and was negotiating with Jordan and the
Palestine Liberation Organization. Assad had no reliable Arab allies.
Remembering that Israel had wiped out most of the Syrian air force in
one day in 1982, Assad had every incentive to avoid a pretext for another
preemptive strike. An agreement that might restore territories Syria had no
means of reconquering in the foreseeable future presented the most practical
way to preserve Syria’s options, reduce its risks and maintain its prestige –
especially if it came about in a manner whereby major concessions could be
presented as having been exacted from Israel by its fatigue, American pressure
and Syrian intransigence.
A profound difference in perspective shaped the subsequent negotiations.
America and Israel were looking for a dramatic culmination celebrating a
turning point, preferably at a colorful summit chaired by the American
Assad would go no further than a reluctant evolution. He recoiled from
an outcome that appeared to result from a personal decision, which might leave
him vulnerable at home – or was too much like what he disdained as Sadat’s
kowtowing to the West. (This was one of the reasons for the failure of his three
meetings with Clinton.)
Still, I believe that, toward the end, Assad was creating the circumstances from
which he could move in one relatively short step to a conclusion, but that he
deferred that step until he was sure he had regulated the succession at home.
Assad’s death has not altered the circumstances that convinced him to join the
peace process; confrontation has not become a better option for Syria. But
neither have the domestic constraints impelling Assad’s caution. Bashar’s chief
objective must be to consolidate his power. The factions so skillfully and
ruthlessly balanced by Assad will, after the period of mourning, maneuver
against each other.
But there is one new element never fully faced by Assad: the Syrian
economy is a shambles. Syria cannot modernize without foreign investment,
and that requires some semblance of peace. On the other hand, modernizing
means taking on the embedded fiefdoms and constituencies that were the
backbone of Assad’s rule.
Therefore, the prospects for an Israeli-Syrian agreement depend far less on
American diplomacy than on Syrian internal dynamics. The differences between
the two sides are so narrow that a compromise could be constructed, literally,
in a matter of days.
What is at issue is a small sliver of territory never demarcated as Syrian
on international maps but occupied by it between 1949 and 1967, in the
aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war.
Israel seems willing to concede even that point provided Syria does not
use it to claim riparian rights on the Sea of Galilee and interfere with Israeli
When the issue is so clear-cut, its solution is unlikely to be hastened by
American exertions that may simply create an opportunity to raise the ante.
America – and the Clinton administration – deserve much credit for having
moved matters to this point.
The time has come when, paradoxically, the best impetus America can
give is to stand aside. Too hasty an American embrace of Bashar may, in fact,
undermine him. Our diplomacy cannot succeed if we seem to want peace more
than the parties; Syria’s domestic evolution does not respond to the deadlines
of the American political calendar.
In this manner, the Syrian negotiation has become a metaphor for the entire
As a negotiating challenge, the Palestinian-Israeli issue is even more
complex than the Syrian. Once the dividing lines are drawn on the Syrian front,
Syria should have no national claim on Israel. Tensions, if any, would be caused
by Syria’s support of the Arab national cause, and that will be largely defined
by the Palestinian leadership.
But between Palestinians and Israelis, genuine reconciliation will be even more
elusive. In fitting two groups with incompatible views of their historical
patrimony into a territory 50 miles wide, no real reference points exist. The
1949 armistice lines, which were Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders, were never
accepted by any Arab state and most strenuously rejected by the PLO.
These borders left Israel’s two major cities connected by a corridor only nine
miles wide and almost all Israeli population centers within mortar range. Though
the PLO’s rejection of the Jewish state has recently been abandoned (in a
somewhat ambiguous formulation), significant groups within the PLO still
advocate the 1947 partition lines, which would reduce pre-1967 Israel by half.
Then there is Jerusalem, which Israel insists on retaining as its undivided
capital, while the Palestinians claim part of it as theirs. Finally, return of Arab
refugees, not just to the emerging Palestinian state but to Israel itself, remains
In recent negotiations, Israel seems to have gone further in returning West Bank
territory than was thought possible (or safe) even a year ago. Therefore, some
now argue that Jerusalem and the refugee issue should be set aside while
boundaries and the sovereignty of the Palestinian state are settled. This would
be a grave error.
The option of a more benign relationship is unlikely to survive if such disputes
as Jerusalem and refugees are kept open, providing a permanent pretext for
radicals to vitiate the permanence of the territorial settlement – already
precarious because of the unchallenged presence of 40,000 Syrian troops in
Lebanon shielding the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is sure to reject the
Despite all these qualifications, it is likely that agreements will be reached partly
because the alternatives will, in the end, seem more dangerous.
But when this happens, we must avoid euphoria based on the most
favorable assumptions about the future. Whatever one’s hopes for a new
Middle East, at this point an agreement will represent a strategic interlude for
the Syrians and most of the Palestinians, not a commitment to a new world
order – at least not yet.
They must not be tempted by strategic opportunities opened up by a
change in the political or military balance of forces. The obligation to preserve
and strengthen the conditions that sustained the peace process will be an
imperative for both Israel and the United States if, after an agreement is
reached, the peace is to last.
The United States must tread with great care. For the two sides, ultimate issues
are involved: for Israel, survival regardless of its apparent military superiority);
for the Arab side, dignity and evolution into a modern society.
The disagreements are well enough understood by both parties; if a
compromise formula is desired, they can surely ask us to mediate and we
should help. But to reach that point, each side must confront its own reality and
face the consequences of a deadlock. And that insight is more likely to come if
America steps back until the parties decide that their future must break with the