In the prehistoric era when Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was moving around freely and scattering all kinds of declarations, he was faced with a supreme diplomatic test: to deplore terror in Arabic. The language test is an arrogant criterion, and there is considerable insolence in stipulating that an Arab leader must speak in the language of the natives so that the foreigners will believe him. But it seems that sometimes there is no escape from dealing with comparative literature, especially when it comes to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In fluent English, Assad explained his position regarding the peace process with Israel to The New York Times: renewing the process without preconditions, but with the addition of a "proposal" to begin from the place where the talks stopped in 2000. He also tried to define the concept of normalization as "unrestricted expression like the relations between Syria and the United States."
One might wonder whether these relations would also include in a single package the United States' position on Syria and the legislation on settling accounts with Syria, and whether Israel too would have to be included in the list of countries that support terror. But what is happening in Arabic?
Assad can also confuse his Arab listeners when he speaks in Arabic about Israel. The Lebanese newspaper Al Safir, for example, interviewed Assad only nine months ago, in March, when the war in Iraq was almost a done deed.
The reporter asked the president what he thought of the idea of splitting Iraq into three independent states - Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish. And this is what Assad answered: This division is an Israeli interest.
And so that there will be no doubt as to his worldview, he expanded: "In the Middle East there are various nation states, but they share a history and society. Despite the differences among the nations within the one (Arab) people, the social makeup of the region is on the whole similar. Israel is the exception. It is a state in a single color, a religious color, and its democracy is only within this color and not within the framework of the borders of the state. Therefore, Israel cannot be a legitimate state, even if the peace process is completed, because its form is exceptional in the region and perhaps in the entire world. But if states like it are established (in Iraq) with a single hue and with legitimate religious and ethnic nationalism, Israel, in its own opinion, will also win legitimization."
Here is the aim of the Zionist plot. Assad, it seems from this interview, relates to Israel the way Israel related to the Palestinians in Golda Meir's time.
Then with what Israeli state does Assad want to make peace? With the state that he says is illegitimate, or with the state with which his father went quite a way to "80 percent agreement"?
Which Assad should be believed - the one who says that Israel is behind all the troubles that befall the Arab states, as he told Al Safir in March, or the Assad who is sending up balloons of normalization and full relations in the interview to The New York Times - an interview that has been kept from the eyes of Syria's citizens?
Political leaders tend to change their positions according to circumstances, and diplomacy is an especially flexible business. Bashar's father, too, had his share of statements deploring Israel, yet nevertheless he sat at the negotiating table a number of times. Bashar Assad, too, is changing his tune. He is not stipulating another comprehensive peace after the "betrayal" of the Palestinians at Oslo, Jordan in the Arava agreement and Egypt, "the mother of all sins," in the Camp David agreement. Assad even supported the Saudi initiative which speaks - at the end of the road - of a peace between all the Arab states and Israel.
But it seems that Assad is sometimes alarmed by his own positions. He did not formally object to the road map, but attacked it publicly as "an American bribe to the Arabs." He did not participate in the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summits, but he allowed the leadership of the Palestinian organizations that enjoy his protection to take part in the hudna (truce) talks in Egypt. What exactly does Assad want now? Is this a change in his worldview, or only a public relations ploy? More about this, perhaps, in the next interview with him.
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