Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Why Did Syria Call Israel's Prime Minister a "Terrorist"?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Why Did Syria Call Israel's Prime Minister a "Terrorist"?

Article excerpt

Why Did Syria Call Israel's Prime Minister a "Terrorist"?

On the fifth day of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa produced an old British "wanted" photo of a young Jewish terrorist. He was responding to charges by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that Syria supports "terrorism." The Syrian reaction was understandable, but a tactical blunder.

Until that moment, an international noose had been tightening around Israel's intransigent prime minister. George Bush's threat to link future aid to Israel to the peace process looked easier and easier to accomplish.

Then, with the Syrian's words, the US media focus changed, and two Washington Post reporters were able to write, straight-faced, that "the week's most dramatic demonstration was the Syrian display of aggressiveness toward Israel."

Syrians live in a vanished mid-century world where the Cold War set the tone of international politics. US and Western European public opinion was meaningless, because Syria's support came from the USSR. Syrians seem unable to realize now, in the absence of Soviet support, that their best defense is to see that America's Cold War client loses its support as well.

Probably fewer than 50 of 535 members of the US Congress truly support Likudist Israel. The rest would follow a firm presidential lead in cutting unconditional aid to Israel. But these politicians would prefer to ride on a tide of changing American public opinion. This is what most of the Palestinians at Madrid understood. The Syrians, alone, didn't know how to support that change.

The Palestinians explained over and over their utterly reasonable requests. They returned smiles, shook Israeli hands when they were extended, and went right on talking. They won a major public opinion victory.

The Syrians, with an equally comprehensible case to present, tucked their hands behind them, and returned scowl for scowl with the grim but glib Israelis. A Syrian spokesman even declined to acknowledge questions from Israeli journalists.

In the words of Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, "Here was the Arab that Shamir's Likud party has come to know, hate and rely on." Referring to Syria's delegates, Israeli Ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval joked on television, "I want to deny the rumor that we paid them to help our information effort."

Madrid was not a disaster for the Syrians, who have everything to gain from negotiations. But it immensely complicated Secretary of State James Baker's strategy of focusing the media spotlight on Israeli intransigence. The media, instead, focused on the scowling Syrian, and stubbornly ignored the Palestine police mugshot he was holding.

It was a photo of an undersized gunman still known by his Polish name, Yitzhak Yizernitzky. He was one of the Jewish extremists who, between 1937 and 1939, killed more than 300 Arab civilians by machine-gunning passing buses and bombing open air restaurants and marketplaces. On one July day in 1938, they rolled an oil drum laden with explosives downhill into a bus stop in Haifa, killing 35 men, women and children and leaving others maimed and bleeding.

When World War II began, one group of these terrorists, called Irgun Zvai Leumi and headed by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, declared a cease-fire with the British. The other group, Lehi, the Hebrew acronym for "Fighters for the Freedom of Israel," tried to ally itself first with fascist Italy, then with Nazi Germany and finally with Stalinist Russia. …

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