Israeli forbearance in the face of the Scud attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa may have ramifications far beyond merely improving the often tempestuous relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. In restraining its impulse to retaliate, Israel has demonstrated in the most graphic way possible that it is not, as its Arab enemies have claimed ever since 1967, the Middle East’s most avowedly expansionist power.
Indeed, Israel’s patience has resulted in unprecedented statements by both Syria and Saudi Arabia (as well as Egypt) that they recognize its need to defend itself in the face of attack. Put another way, some of the Jewish state’s longest-standing antagonists have proclaimed, in unequivocal terms, that Israel does indeed have the right to exist.
Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrines, has in the past felt compelled to stand up to what the Muslim world widely viewed as an alien interloper in the region, whose eventual expulsion was as inevitable as that of the Crusaders seven centuries earlier. But the Saudis have been careful about confronting the Israelis: Recognizing their inability to do much against the Jewish state militarily, their opposition has been framed in terms of both their strong support of the Arab League boycott of Israel and their significant financial support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Now, however, it is the PLO, not Israel, that is supporting a mortal threat to the House of Saud. Moreover, the Israelis are being perceived in Riyadh as quite literally risking their lives to preserve a coalition whose task remains as much as to protect Saudi Arabia’s integrity as to restore Kuwait to its rightful rulers. With no territorial or irredentist ambitions vis-a-vis Israel and with Egypt, the one Arab nation at peace with Israel, as its strongest Arab ally, the Saudis have few incentives not to come to grips with the reality of the Israeli state.
Syria’s position is not as clear. Syria has historically been Israel’s most implacable enemy, and it continues to smolder in the face of Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, whose liberation is reputed to be Hafez Assad’s lifelong obsession. Thus, Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh’s statement last week that Syria supports Egypt’s position on the legitimacy of Israel’s right to retaliate in the face of a major attack represents nothing less than a policy watershed on the part of Shareh’s boss, the strongman of Damascus.
In spite of widespread gloomy talk about the difficulties of resolving the Palestinian dispute, Syria’s position does offer serious new prospects for peace in the Middle East. Because Syria’s grievance is a territorial one, not unlike Egypt’s demand for the return of Sinai, many of the more metaphysical aspects of the Palestinian dispute can be avoided in seeking an accommodation between Jerusalem and Damascus.
Hafez Assad, like Israel’s Yitzhak Shamir, has no great love for the PLO. Assad would not be averse to trading away PLO interests if that were necessary to realize Syrian national objectives. Shamir, for his part, has stressed on many occasions the need for resolving Israel’s disputes with its neighbors simultaneously with, if not before, finding a solution to the Palestinian issue. Since Jordan poses no major threat to Israel, and Egypt is already at peace with Israel, it is clear that “neighbors” in Shamir’s lexicon is not a particularly well-disguised reference to Syria.
Finally, whatever its differences with Israel, Syria has scrupulously adhered to its agreements with Jerusalem, formulated in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Terrorists do not cross into Israel from Syria. The disengagement arrangements devised by Henry Kissinger remain very much in force. What was not settled, however, was Syria’s readiness to accept Israel’s true right to exist. Now Syria has gone beyond that: It also accepts Israel’s right to fight for that existence.
In the days ahead, that acceptance may prove to be a major turning point in the history of the world’s most troubled, war-torn region.