Syrian President Hafez Assad, looking tired and anxious in the midst of a new round of efforts to forge a peace agreement with Israel, reproached the Palestinians on Wednesday for making an early peace settlement that he said breached the Arabs’ wall of unity against Israel.
Assad, meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to help move the peace process along, said Israel has succeeded in dividing the Arabs in a way that will make it more difficult to win full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands in the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights.
“As for why Israel was successful, it is because we lost,” Assad said at a news conference after his meeting with Mubarak. “And we lost because the wall of Arab coordination was affected by what happened.
“We have been hurt because the Arab parties had been acting in coordination, and causing a gap in the Arab wall is not in the Arabs’ interest or in the interest of the Palestinians. Any of these parties acting alone will be weaker than if all the Arab parties were moving together.”
Assad, in his first public assessment of the plan for early Israeli withdrawal in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, was faintly derisive of the agreement signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel last week.
“I would hope that this agreement could give the Palestinian brothers what they deserve,” he said. “But if you want me to count for you the holes in this agreement, I will give you the agreement itself, and if you read it with concentration and precision, you will not need to ask me. . . . Every point in this deal needs another deal of its own, and that deal in turn needs even more discussions and negotiations.”
Yet Assad emphasized that Syria remains committed to the process. “The Palestinian-Israeli agreement will not affect Syria’s position on peace. We want to realize a just and comprehensive peace for the area . . . and we know that the peace process must be pursued in two directions, not just one.”
Mubarak, who has been trying to probe possible lines of accord between Syria and Israel, was upbeat in his assessment. “The Palestinian negotiations stayed with us two years and maybe more, but I think the Syrian problem can be solved more easily,” he said.
Mubarak met over the weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who has reportedly indicated that Israel is not anxious to give up land in the Golan Heights at the same time it is withdrawing from Jericho and Gaza, given significant public opposition in Israel to any troop withdrawals.
But the Egyptians are urging rapid progress on the Syrian front, fearing that momentum may be lost if those negotiations are allowed to falter now.
“We are of the opinion that we should not wait to see how the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinians will develop in order to start considering seriously how to activate the Syrian-Israeli track,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nagui Ghatrify said in an interview.
“We believe we should make use of the momentum and the driving force that was ignited by the signing of this Declaration of Principles in order to make progress with Syria and Israel.”
Mubarak said he differs with Rabin on the question of pursuing one track at a time. " . . . This (Palestinian) Declaration of Principles, it is only the beginning of the problems. There is still a long, complicated way ahead of us to achieve a solution for the Palestinian problem. And we cannot put aside the track of Syria until we go through with that.”
The central issue that has always divided Syria and Israel is the issue of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Egyptian diplomats say the two parties generally agree on the idea of Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peace. But deadlock has arisen over the timing and extent of withdrawal, on the one hand, and what constitutes an offering of peace on Syria’s part, on the other.
Other sources said that Mubarak is looking for ways to provide reassurance to both sides. He is reportedly planning to approach Assad with the idea of silencing the radical Palestinian rejectionists who have used Damascus as a base for trying to sabotage the Israel-PLO accord.
Looking for a trade-off, the Egyptians were said to be discussing in Washington the idea of removing Syria from the U.S. list of nations that support terrorism.
Times researcher Aly Assem contributed to this report from Alexandria.