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To understand what is going on now in the Middle East, and in Western perceptions of the region, it is a revelation to recall the brilliant prophesy made by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara in January 2000.
Shara was discussing Syrian strategy in negotiations with Israel which were about to reach their culmination. A few weeks later, President Bill Clinton met Syrian President Hafez Assad in Switzerland. Clinton offered Assad the return of all the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Israel. Assad turned him down.
A few months after that, Assad died and Bashar Assad replaced his father. He has followed a radical course (though often being falsely credited with the opposite) ever since.
Syria and the PLO did not reverse their historic policy of seeking Israel's destruction. What they did do, however, is to reverse their rhetoric about that goal. In 1967, Arab states openly declared their refusal to negotiate with Israel, make peace with Israel, or accept its existence.
In 1974, the PLO adopted a two-stage strategy: First, get a Palestinian state, and then use it as a base for achieving total victory.
Up to the 1993 Oslo Agreement, however, the PLO only paid lip service (though, in dealing with much of the West, even the most minimal fig leaf suffices) to this plan. Yasser Arafat moved it into an operational mode, however, but it would be left to Shara to articulate it publicly with the greatest clarity.
IN HIS January 2000 speech to the Syrian Writers Union, Shara opened on a pessimistic note. After their defeat in the 1967 war the Arabs seemed to be "really cornered and faced with one of two choices. Either we have to accept a peace that is akin to capitulation and surrender, which can never be the peace we want, or we have to reject peace without a solid ground on which to base this rejection."
"Surrender" meant any compromise peace agreement which secured Israel's existence even if it paid for that privilege by giving up the territory captured in 1967 and accepting an independent Palestinian state. Rejecting peace without a solid basis meant just sounding extremist by preaching perpetual war on Israel.
For decades, Arab states had publicly insisted they would never make peace with Israel. After Egypt did so in the late 1970s, every regime tried to prove it was not a traitor like Sadat. Then Arafat made a deal in 1994 and Jordan signed a peace treaty thereafter. The old position was not just untenable, it was recognized as a public relationsâ€š disaster.
Here is how Shara put it prophetically in 2000, a few days before Syria rejected getting its land back through the peace process:
"If we do not get our land through the peace process, we will win the world and Arab public. For Israel has continued to claim that it is always with peace and that the Arabs are against it. True, the media are directed against us and are in favor of the enemy to a large extent, but it is possible to penetrate these mighty, hostile media ... Our strong, solid, and persistent position and the reaffirmation of our constants in a convincing way are bound to have an effect."
In other words, as long as the Arab side explicitly rejects peace, Israel will have the diplomatic and media advantage. What must be done is to say the Arabs were ready for peace, to repeat demands and so, "in a convincing way," persuade the international community that Israel was at fault for the conflict since it rejected these demands.
WHEN ISRAEL did offer almost everything the Arabs sought, new issues were found to explain why the Arabs said no. Such issues include the Palestinian demand that all refugees should return to Israel (where they can sabotage it from within).
Then there are always tiny, forgotten pieces of territory, as with the Hizbullah claim that Israel is occupying a small piece of Lebanon (the Shaba Farms), which everyone else - including Syria - regards as Syrian territory. Another is the Syrian demand for Israeli land illegally occupied by Syria in 1948 which would give Damascus a claim on Israel's main water source.
There is always the pretext of prisoners being held by Israel (those who committed the last round of terrorist attacks) or quibbling over language. Has Hamas recognized Israel's right to exist? Well it has, maybe, perhaps, sort of implicitly, hinted, if you read between the lines and ignore what Hamas leaders say in Arabic to the contrary.
"A strong argument is important in the media," said Shara back in 2000. "We only want our land and rights. They are the ones who are exposed now because they want to keep the land."
And so, six years after Israel offered to give up all the land it captured in 1967 it is possible to persuade the world that Israel has not offered to do so. Immediately after Israel withdraws from all the Gaza Strip and proposed large withdrawals from the West Bank, much of the Western media and even governments are convinced that the problem is that Israel is still an occupier.
No wonder Shara concluded: "So, in either case, we will not lose."
With Arab regimes insisting they did want peace - but avoiding any irreversible step in that direction - the world's diplomats beat a path to their door. Even after Arafat and Assad rejected peace in 2000, an Arab leader merely had to say he wanted peace - even if only in English words that were contradicted by what was said in Arabic - and the onus was put on Israel for the failure to make a breakthrough.
It was the diplomatic equivalent of shampoo bottle instructions to repeat the application, even though rinsing one time was enough. This immediately doubled consumption of the product: a tiny linguistic amendment that made all the difference in the world.
The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
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