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Israel and Syria: Correcting the Record

By Stephen S. Rosenfeld

Friday, December 24, 1999; Page A15

The Syrian foreign minister came off as the skunk at the picnic for using the reopening of talks with Israel to speak harshly of his would-be peace partner. But at least some of what he said--calling Israel's fabled Gen. Moshe Dayan as a witness in Syria's favor, for instance--was fair and to the point and needs to be absorbed on all sides to help propel the negotiations forward.

Minister Farouk Charaa addressed a core cause of more than 1,000 armed clashes between Israel and Syria in 1948-67: the Israeli contention that the Syrians, sitting on the Golan Heights, repeatedly shelled Israel's farms and settlements below in the Galilee and its water projects in the Huleh valley. This shelling--in the common Israeli and American view--is what gave Israel its rationale for capturing the Golan Heights in the 1967 war. The disposition of this land is what the current peace talks are about.

Except, to cite Moshe Dayan, it didn't happen just that way. In 1976 Dayan gave an extraordinary interview to Israeli journalist Rami Tal but embargoed it. He died in 1981. Only on April 27, 1997, did his daughter Yael, a Labor parliamentarian, release it. It was not new news in Israel, but it made a stir. It made practically no stir in this country; I missed it at the time.

Said Dayan: "I made a mistake in allowing the [Israeli] conquest of the Golan Heights. As defense minister I should have stopped it because the Syrians were not threatening us at the time." The attack proceeded, he went on, not because Israel was threatened but because of pressure from land-hungry farmers and army commanders in northern Israel. "Of course [war with Syria] was not necessary. You can say the Syrians are bastards and attack when you want. But this is not policy. You don't open aggression against an enemy because he's a bastard but because he's a threat."

About those shellings: Syria shelled and otherwise emanated cold hostility. But, Dayan told his interviewer, "at least 80 percent" of two decades of border clashes were initiated by Israel. "We would send a tractor to plow some [disputed] area . . . and we knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn't shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that's how it was."

So, on the authority of what you could call an impeccable Israeli source, the situation is very different from what is commonly portrayed. Israel, with an appetite for land, for political profit and for strategic depth, was in the Golan instance--not in all instances--an aggressor, not the victim of aggression. In turn, the Dayan testimony largely supports the Syrian foreign minister's assertion the other day, and earlier, that "it was the other [Israeli] side who insisted on provoking the Syrians until they clashed together and then claimed that the Syrians are the aggressors."

Well, you may say, this is the way the game was played in the mean years of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was hardball. Land, pride, strategic advantage: These were the stakes. Countries were prepared to fight repeatedly for them. Their public opinion congealed around the expectation of war. Peace was simply not seen as a realistic option.

Fortunately, things are different now, thanks to 25 years of American-sponsored diplomacy and much else. People remember, though, and peoples remember. As Israel has its own occasions to know, to be a victim of aggression burns deeply, the more so when your pain is generally unacknowledged and politically all but invisible.

In Israel's case, Arab threats to its viability and its very existence kindled an intense combativeness only now tentatively yielding to the proposition that security can be served by accommodation as well as power. In Syria's case, its own inability to put on a civil public face has deprived it of the appreciation it might otherwise have expected as a sometime offended state; it is also, of course, a sometime offending state as well.

It can be no surprise that Syria demands back all of its territory--territory it lost not to a failure of its own aggression but to a success of Israel's. Given the corrected record, it can hardly be without concern for its own ultimate security. Syria and Israel are entitled to have a mutual interest in security measures and in the political and economic initiatives that may by degrees shrink their hostility and make peace possible.

(c) Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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