Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel, was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize along with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.
Tel AvivIt is only predictable things that come as a real surprise.
Syrian President Hafez el Assads failing health was no secret to
the worlds decision-makers, yet his death caused a sensation. Also
known to all, even more than his ill health, were the many flaws in his
mode of government and the abundant shortcomings of his rule. And possibly
above all others was his determination to hang on to an era that had disappeared
from most parts of the Earth.
When he came into power as sole ruler of Syria, 30 years ago, the worldincluding
the Arab worldwas different. At the time, the Cold War influenced
the world and the Middle East conflict drew its force from the greater
world conflict. The Soviet Union at the time lavished money and weapons
on a number of dictators in the Middle East and turned a blind political
eye to help them, primarily President Assad.
The Arabs were convinced they could defeat Israel by sheer force of strength,
and they opted for a military-oriented policy. To that end, they created
military coalitions with the aim of going to war. The world economy was
then more nationalistic in nature than global. The media were still on
the brink of the enormous television-generated power they would garner.
Terror had still not uncovered to the full its beast-like mien.
When Assad took his leave, however, the world was one that had undergone
radical changes. The Cold War had ended, Russia was no longer as generous
and biased as the Soviet Union had been. The Middle East had experienced
a number of expensive wars that did not result in the expected victories.
There was now a global market economy.
Assads contemporaries, who once fought alongside him, had passed
from war to peace. Anwar Sadat, one of the two architects of the Yom Kippur
War, had signed a peace agreement with Israel. King Hussein of Jordan,
whose country had been dragged into wars it had not initiated, also embarked
on the road to peace. Arafat, who once stood at the head of the strategy
of terror, had abandoned this tool, entered into political negotiations
and recognized Israel. The King of Morocco, Hassan II, who served as chairman
of the Jerusalem Committee on behalf of the Muslim world, sought peace-building
channels and went so far as to put his country at the disposal of the
Alone among all these rulers was Assad. While he decided on a strategy
of peace, 21 out of his 30 years of rule were wasted on negotiations that
were inconclusive. Even when Israel made concessions in his favor, Assad
entrenched himself in the notion that he had to have a say on the shores
of the Kinneret. This proved beyond a doubt that he had no confidence
in the central truism of politics: the art of the feasible. He was unable
to understand that Israel, which possesses two lakes, one of which is
dead, would never relinquish its sovereignty over the only freshwater
lake it had, constituting a valuable water reservoir and a regulator of
its irrigation needs.
Furthermore, Assad entered Lebanon with alacrity and permitted various
terror organizations to operate from his country and in Lebanon. As a
consequence, Syria today is one of the poorest countries in the Middle
East. Its army is not in a position to cope with another war. And the
young Assad lacks the coalition for such an undertaking, as well as the
arms called for to ensure victory (even the weapons destined to bring
about victory in the past failed to do so). Syrias presence in Lebanon
is embarrassing, and it will not be long before the Lebanese insist that
Syria withdraw from its land after Israels pullout.
Even the contest for leadership over the Arab world has been relegated
today to a barely distinct memory of days of grandeur long past.
A ruler should not be judged according to the length of his rule, but
by the track record of his achievements, and Assads time spent at
the helm does not seem too brilliant, in light of the accomplishments
he did not attain. Assad was a taciturn man. He spoke only Arabic. He
barely saw the world. In his own country too he traveled rarely. Most
of the lengthy meetings he held focused on historyremote history.
Even though he ruled his country with an iron fist, this did not enable
Syria to attain even one of the two vital goals that all the countries
of the Middle East now seek: making peace at the dawning of the new era;
ceasing the wars of the previous epoch.
His son Bashar appears to be more of a man of the worldmore capable
and better equipped to deal with the new challenges of the new age the
world is embarking upon. He speaks English, makes use of the Internet
and is also an ophthalmologistbad eyesight is one of the most common
diseases in the Middle East.
Should he, however, give top priority to the task of stabilizing his rule
at home, while making the same demands from Israel to which it cannot
agree (partnership in the Kinneret), it is doubtful that he will accomplish
stability, and even more improbable that he will advance his country as
The first hundred days of rule are always the decisive ones. Should Bashar
take advantage of this period to return to the negotiating table, he could
turn his fathers legacy into his peoples hope.
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