Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Syrians Suspicious of Israeli Overtures

OSLO -- Israel's deputy foreign minister said Wednesday his country is ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria and that such a deal could be reached quickly once Damascus agrees to direct talks, but Syrians remain fearful of the implications of such a peace when and if it comes.

"There is an Israeli readiness to pull out of Golan after years of saying we would not give back an inch," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told an early morning news conference in Oslo during a tour of Scandinavia.

"The Syrians are ready to normalize relations with Israel," he said. "Once we sit down together in direct negotiations, I believe it would only be a matter of some months until we could sign an agreement with Syria."

The sensitivity in Israel of the Golan issue was highlighted Wednesday when Beilin's comments, reported in the Israeli press as an offer of a complete withdrawal, sparked a storm of protest, calls for the deputy minister's resignation and a quick clarification by the Foreign Ministry itself. Isreal has offered an unspecified pullback on the Golan Heights, but has never publicly agreed to a total withdrawal.

But in Syria too, many Syrians are jittery about the prospects of peace with a country long portrayed as warmongering, aggressive and untrustworthy.

Many fear that the Israelis will dominate them in peace instead of war.

"We fear an invasion. We fear an economic invasion, an invasion of the media, an invasion of culture, an invasion of tourism," said a Syrian architect. Like others who spoke privately, he dared not be identified.

"They will try to dictate from Israel," he continued. "They are like a monster, an octopus. You don't know the Zionists."

Such nervousness is common here, where few Syrians have much contact with the outside to temper the steady diet of propaganda.

Syrian President Hafez Assad still has total control to make a peace deal. But the reservations of his people may serve as a caution light for him, if he does not want to get too far ahead of popular sentiment.

"People were suffering here for 40 years on the principle that we have to fight and stand against Israel," said an author in Damascus. "Now to be told that it was a mistake all those years? People are not going to be happy about this peace."To be sure, some are looking forward to the advantages of peace.

Suliman Mustafa stands on a dusty bluff opposite Majdal Shams, a hillside town within the Israeli lines of the Golan Heights. With a bullhorn, he shouts across 250 yards to his mother and father, who reply by yelling.

Families were split when Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967, and permission to cross the lines is rare. Mustafa's six children have never met their grandmother, aunts or uncles. There is no telephone communication or mail between Israel and Syria, still formally at war.

"My father is preparing to have a medical operation, and we're asking about it," said Mustafa, who brought his family 35 miles from Damascus to carry on this open-air, shouted dialogue. "It's a terrible way to talk. But there is no other way."

If there is a peace agreement and Israel returns the captured Golan Heights, families such as Mustafa's may be reunited.

Assad's unwillingness to open his country to the economic and democratic influences of Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's awareness of the continuing fierce opposition over a turnover of the strategic Golan Heights, from which Syrian troops could overlook the Galilee, are obstacles to such a peace.

But both sides face pressures to come to terms and are moving cautiously closer.

"I think the basic parameters of the agreement have been worked out for some time -- I'd say a year. But the devil is in the details," said a Western diplomat in Damascus.

Israel knows it can never live in peace in the Middle East without a pact with powerful Syria, while for Assad, defense minister when the Golan Heights were seized in 1967, it has long been the mantra of his regime to get back the land he lost in the war.

"There's an incredible amount of symbolism in this for Assad. He's got to get back the Golan," said the diplomat. "Assad does not want to shake Rabin's hand. But if at the end of the day Rabin says 'No shake, no Golan,' then Assad will do it."

(Reuters, The Baltimore Sun)