The wind whipped off Golan Heights and pressed Hamad Safadi’s Bedouin robes close against his frail, 70-year-old body. His hands shook, one fumbling with a battery-powered bullhorn and the other with a pair of field glasses. Finally, teetering near the edge of a cliff the Syrians call the Speaking Line, Safadi gazed across a valley of ancient and abandoned farms into a small village more prosperous than he had imagined, and he placed the microphone near his lips.
“Salman Shahadi! Mohammed Shahadi! It’s me! Hamad Safadi,” the old Syrian farmer called out, waving to two old men who were little more than white-robed specks behind a barbed wire fence across half a mile of demilitarized buffer zone.
“Praise to God, Hamad Safadi. It is you,” came the hollow shout from the other side. And tears welled up in the old Syrian’s eyes.
This meeting across the armistice line that divides the Syrian and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights marked the first time Hamad Safadi had laid eyes on his two cousins in more than a quarter century. Only U.N. personnel are allowed to cross this no-man’s-land, so Safadi could go no further.
The brief, long-distance conversation among the old Druze cousins under the watchful eyes of Syrian and Israeli army mountainside outposts that morning was as much a metaphor for the towering obstacles in the way of a complete Middle East peace as the strange bit of real estate where it happened--the place the residents call the Shouting Valley.
Peace was breaking out all around them last week, with a historic handshake in Washington and a breakthrough agreement between Israel and Jordan. But here on the Golan Height, cousins had to settle for a distant glimpse and a shout between hillsides.
“So what about this new peace between Palestine and Israel? Will it happen here?” one of Safadi’s long-lost cousins yelled, after comparing notes about relatives dead, gone, married and born.
“God willing, there will be a peace here too, so we can see and touch each other again,” the old Syrian shouted back. “But we don’t know the opinion of our leaders, what it will be. Maybe their opinion will differ from ours.”
So far, at least, it seems it has.
An official sign near the Speaking Line illustrates the depth of the problem: “Our Children in the Occupied Land Are a Thorn in the Throat of the Zionist Occupier.” It is signed by Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Through the blur of speeches, signatures and ceremonies in recent days, once-unthinkable events that led so many to hope Middle East peace would be like dominoes falling in a line, the Arab world’s most durable dictator has been lukewarm, at best.
In an interview published over the weekend by the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar, Assad said “no one has gained except Israel” from the Israeli-PLO agreement signed last week at the White House.
However, he added that Syria remains committed to peace negotiations and does not consider the PLO’s deal with Jerusalem a threat. “Considering we are enemies it is natural that we must be cautious,” he added.
In fact, in a land where Assad often sends messages through proxies, there have been signals that the Syrian leader is both displeased and deeply frustrated by the pace and direction of the peace process.
His authoritarian government has sanctioned angry, anti-Arafat demonstrations in the streets of Damascus. And it has stood by while opposition Palestinian groups use the Syrian capital as a staging ground for an attempt to convene an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization to work against Arafat and derail the peace train.
Last Wednesday, President Clinton telephoned Assad for the second time in a week, urging the Syrian leader to restrain radical Palestinian opponents of the Israel-PLO agreement. White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers quoted her boss as telling Assad he believes comprehensive peace in the Middle East is possible with Syria’s support. “I very much want to see an agreement between Israel and Syria, and I want to emphasize my personal commitment to making progress on all fronts of the peace process,” Clinton said.
For their own reasons, however, both Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seem content to bide their time before renewing efforts at resolving their differences.
In short, according to diplomats, Syrians and other Arab analysts in the region, the peace train--for the moment at least--stops here.
“There will be no dramatic moves,” said one Western diplomat in Damascus. “Assad is just sitting back, waiting to see how these Palestinian institutions are going to work.”
“President Assad has time on his side,” added Jawad Anani, Jordan’s deputy prime minister and a key delegate who helped draft Jordan’s agreement with Israel. “He has lived so long without the Golan Heights, he can continue like this for some time more.”
It has been 26 years since Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The strategic plateau was also the sight of bloody fighting in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. And Syria has long been regarded as by far Israel’s best armed and most dangerous foe.
“I believe the Israelis and Syrians think of themselves as the archbishops of the negotiating process,” commented Anani. “They think they’re the ‘big ones.’ They’re playing big-time games. . . .And they’re looking only for the one big deal.”
Earlier this year, it appeared Syria and Israel were on the brink of a breakthrough in negotiations they began as part of regional peace talks launched in Madrid nearly two years ago. But instead, it was secret talks between Israel and the PLO that broke the ice.
“True enough, Assad saw himself as the dean of this peace process and the architect of the future Middle East,” said another diplomat who has studied Syria’s longtime leader for several years. “He’s the kind of leader who expects to take the lead, and now events seem to have eclipsed him. But maybe now he’s reversing his priorities and saying, ‘Well, if I finish last, all of the attention will be on me.’ ”
Assad holds the key to any agreement between Israel and Lebanon, as well. To him, Lebanon is part of the historic Greater Syria, and thousands of Syrian troops have been stationed there since the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975. More than that, he has long compared the Israelis to the Crusaders and lionized the legendary Islamic warrior Saladin, who drove them from the Holy Land 700 years ago.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin also seems happy for some breathing room before pushing ahead in the Syrian negotiations. Already under heavy fire from right-wing opponents livid that he has cut a deal with Arafat, Rabin is reportedly loathe to be seen as making more concessions to the Arab side.
Beyond personalities, the continuing stalemate between Israel and the bitterest of its Arab foes boils down to a single word in the critical section of the Syrian-Israeli negotiating document that addresses the future of the Golan Heights.
“When Israel talks about withdrawal, it still talks about withdrawal inside the Golan Heights and not from the Golan Heights,” explained a commentary on Damascus State Radio. “What have the Israelis offered? They have offered nothing--only talk. And this talk has failed to meet the minimum aspirations of the Arabs.”
Added a recent editorial in the state-run Syria Times: “The Israeli propaganda on the achievement of some progress (in the peace process) remains mere propaganda until Tel Aviv publicly declares its intention to withdraw completely from the occupied Golan Heights.”
While willing to give up portions of the heights, Israel is anxious to maintain key strategic positions that would protect Israeli towns and villages in the valley below.
Privately, several Syrians conceded that they hope for a compromise that would exchange at least part of the Golan for a peace that most believe could usher in a new era of prosperity.
“Our side and the Israeli side are too rigid,” said one Syrian intellectual who asked not to be named. “Something must give. We all long for peace more than anything, some more than the land. If our borders are safe, Israel will open up to us and we to them, and everyone will benefit.”
But in Assad’s view--which remains the only one that matters in a nation he has ruled with unchallenged power and military authority under continuing states of emergency--it is all or nothing when it comes to the Golan.
Assad has insisted publicly and privately in his meetings with Arab leaders during the past two years of negotiations that they take pains to present a unified front against the Israelis, in which none would, as one senior Arab official put it, “negotiate peace, piece by piece.”
The Syrian leader also made it clear in the few interviews he has granted since the peace process began that he feared any leader who made a separate deal with the Israelis would meet the same fate as the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated after he signed the Camp David accords that returned the Israeli-occupied Sinai to Egypt.
“What bothers the regime the most now is the lack of forewarning, the lack of coordination,” another Western diplomat in the region observed. “The Syrians got used to being in the lead.”
To reclaim that lead, analysts said, Assad has a number of tools at his disposal--among them the radical, Damascus-based Palestinian groups that have staged the recent series of anti-Arafat demonstrations.
A taste of the fury and hate those groups can generate came during one small demonstration outside the PLO Representative Office in downtown Damascus last week, where men, women and students chanted: “Arafat is a coward. Arafat is an American spy. Shame, shame, he sold Palestine for dollars. To hell with the peaceful solution. No to Washington. No to Arafat. No peace. No surrender.”
One radical opposition group, a splinter faction of Arafat’s Fatah, publicly sanctioned “the spilling of the blood of the traitor, Arafat.”
“Assad can use these groups as bargaining chips,” said another diplomat in the region. “He can use them to turn up the heat and use the promise to turn it down, or even expel them from Syria, in a future deal with Israel.”
But, against the backdrop of the policy that is being played out in the streets, few Syrians expect any such deal in the near future. Typical was the response of a supermarket manager in the crossroads town of Khan Anaby, the last bustling commercial center before the U.N.-policed Golan border.
“Peace? What peace?” the manager asked with a laugh, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Nothing’s happened yet. We have a saying here, ‘Don’t speak about something that hasn’t happened.’ ”
And 45 miles to the south, as the old Syrian farmer Hamad Safadi made his way back to the van that would take him the 140 miles to his home village of Sweida, he simply threw up his hands when asked whether he believed the recent outbreaks of peace will bring him closer to his cousins.
“This,” he said, looking skyward, “is known only to God.”
Leader: Elias Hrawi
Position: Wants Israel to withdraw from self-proclaimed security zone in the south. Unlikely to consider any peace deal until the Syria question is settled.
Leader: Hafez Assad
Position: Unhappy about PLO-Israel pact. Wants full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights before he agrees to any peace.
Leader: Yitzhak Rabin
Position: Signed framework peace agreement.
Leader: PLO chief Yasser Arafat
Position: Signed framework peace agreement.
Leader: King Hussein
Position: Signed interim peace pact.