In a news article that attracted very wide attention, Al-Hayat (a Saudi-owned daily based in London) on June 22, 1999, published an interview with Patrick Seale1 in which he reported positive remarks made by the Israeli and Syrian leaders about each other. The first paragraph is by the unnamed journalist of Al-Hayat.
Patrick Seale, the British author and journalist known for his involvement in the Middle East, especially Syrian affairs, visited Israel a few days ago on invitation by the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern at Tel Aviv University, where he delivered two lectures together with Itamar Rabinovich (who had headed the team of Israeli delegates in the talks with Damascus). Seale met with Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak and several of his top aides, President Ezer Weizman, former prime ministers Simon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, and leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Accompanied by retired General Uri Sagi, a former head of military intelligence, Seale visited the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Upon his return to London he went to Damascus where he met President Hafiz al-Asad. Today he presents in Al-Hayat some of what he brought along in his bag, beginning with an atmospheric description of his meetings with the two leaders, first the Israeli, then the Syrian:
I am probably among the lucky few who in recent days met both Israel's prime minister-elect and Syria's President Hafiz Al-Asad.
I believe that this is a historic moment. From talking to these two influential leaders I got the distinct impression that there is an honest desire for peace on both sides. Neither Israel nor Syria have previously ever shown such a degree of readiness to reach a settlement. It appears that the present situation offers more than merely a "window" of opportunity; rather, it presents a wide open door through which these two opponents can pass through together to put an end to their historic conflict, benefiting the entire region. All of this depends, of course, on their intentions being honest.
Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak is short but well built, like a firm fist. His dark eyes sparkle and he speaks with great firmness, radiating strength. By any standard, he is the most important personality on Israel's political scene.
I met him in Tel Aviv, in a room still decorated with posters of his victorious election campaign. He had not finished conducting negotiations with potential coalition partners, and was still busy trying to form a government. Barak had not yet moved to the prime minister's official residence.
He sat in front of me in a small room and said, "I am really very keen to know if it is possible to conclude a ‘peace of the brave' with Syria," adding that "the only way to build comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East is through an accord with Syria. That is the foundation stone for peace. My policies aim at strengthening Israel's security by putting an end to the conflict with Syria."
Further, Barak said that "there is no doubt that President Asad has given Syria her present stature. He built a strong, independent, and self-confident Syria. I am convinced that Syria is of utmost importance for the stability of the Middle East. Looking across at the side opposite us, I regard Syria as the principal pole in the Middle East."
Unfortunately, I cannot relate all that was said in the course of my interview with Prime Minister Barak. He explained that he was still occupied forming his coalition and had not yet been installed in office. For this reason he was not in a position that permits him to expound his opinions in detail or to launch a political initiative.
A few days later I was received by President Asad, the supreme leader of Syria for the last three decades, in his grandiose castle straddling on a mountaintop overlooking Damascus. He received me warmly and was direct and clear in his talk. He appeared wise and sharp, as I have always known him to be throughout the years. It became immediately clear to me that all the concern about his health was unfounded.
"Your Excellency, in Israel I was all the time asked ‘Does President Asad want peace?' What is your answer?"
"Syria always wanted peace, and we want it now. In fact, we have wanted it for a long time, and definitely since the beginning of the peace process in Madrid in 1991."
"I remember that you said as far back as 1975 that you wanted peace."
"That is correct, but at that time there was no peace process."
"Do you discern a change in Israel at the present moment?"
"Yes, there definitely is a change. I believe that there exists a genuine desire for peace."
"What is your reaction to the election of Ehud Barak?"
"I have been following his advance, his actions, and his statements. He seems to be a strong and honest man. Judging by the election results he enjoys wide support. It is clear that he wants to achieve peace with Syria. He moves ahead in a well-planned manner."
"How do you envision the start of the negotiations?"
"We have been engaged in a peace process for years so it is not a matter of starting something new but rather of resuming negotiations now that [former prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is gone. We have to restart on the basis of what had already been achieved previously. The moment Netanyahu was elected (in 1996) we realized that he was out to sabotage things. It was impossible to work with that man. Lots of people came to us with proposals of how to help. Some of those were close to him, others were opposed to his policies. After a while we told them not to waste their time as it was all useless. There are some fanatics over there who would not mind destroying everything if they could. Now the situation is totally different. There has been a movement toward the center. There is a leader capable of moving anything he decides to do. I am certain of that."
"Do you believe that President Clinton is prepared to devote his time and the necessary resources to the peace process?"
"I have not discussed that with him yet."
"But I understand that the two of you have been in contact."
"Yes, he talked to me on phone. I believe that President Clinton is a true supporter of peace. During his first period in office he was actively pursuing peace. Later on circumstances did not allow him to get any further, but I believe that he will now get going again."
"How should the negotiations be started? Do there exist any steps to express one's good intention, steps everyone ought to take in order to pave the ground for negotiations?"
"We are dealing here with a very big issue, the question of peace. That requires much determination and decisiveness. We ought not to be sidetracked by minor issues. It is not possible to say anything more than that until the peace process gets going. If at this moment I were to say anything more that would be neither in Barak's interest nor in our own."
Trans. by Khalid Durán
1 "Barak: Permanent Peace through Agreement with Syria; Asad: Barak is Strong and Honest, and He Wants Peace."