Past echoes in Israel-Syria talks


Memories: A negotiator recalls kindness, intrigue, and belief that a permanent peace was near a half-century ago.


HAIFA, Israel -- Much ado is being made about the fact that the Syrians and the Israelis are finally talking face-to-face about making peace with each other, but Gershon Gilead remembers similar talks that concluded with an armistice more than 50 years and two major wars ago.

At the time, Gilead recalls, a full peace treaty seemed possible within a year or two. "We were all of the same opinion. This was a milestone on the road to peace," he says.

In his apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, Gilead, 79, keeps a symbol of that hope, which only now holds the promise of fulfillment.

It's a copy of the original July 1949 armistice bearing a handwritten Arabic inscription from Col. Muhammad Nasser, his opposite number on the Syrian side:

"As a keepsake for 3 1/2 months of talks," it reads, praising Gilead's "high knowledge of topography, good understanding and quick grasp." Between the covers is a parting gift: a heavy steel pin, featuring a spread-winged eagle and a leaf cluster, from Nasser's army beret.

The armistice was the last of four agreements that stopped the fighting and fixed boundaries after the young Jewish state's first battle to secure its footing in the hostile region.

After declaring statehood in 1948, Israel fought off attacking armies from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In the process, the new nation expanded territory under its control and hundreds of thousands of native Palestinians became stateless refugees.

The aftertaste of the war was bad, leading only to armed truces between Israelis and Arabs. But it was not as bitter as it would become over the next generation, as Israel's expanding might, the plight of Palestinians and the rise of pan-Arabism inflamed passions throughout the Middle East.

The 1949 Israeli-Syrian talks were held in twin tents in no-man's land near the northeastern Israeli village of Mishmar Hayarden on a wave of cautious optimism -- but with an undercurrent of skulduggery.

In contrast to the frosty formality of the present negotiations, the atmosphere in the tents was cordial and casual. "I don't think I felt any animosity against Jews or against Israelis," Gilead says.

Handshakes were never an issue; the soldiers usually just exchanged salutes. A Bedouin servant brought by the Syrians always made enough coffee for both sides. And at a time when much of war-torn Israel was still barren, Syrians delivered fresh fruit and vegetables for the other side. The small delegations were aided by a team of United Nations mediators overseen by the noted diplomat, Ralph Bunche.

Having already concluded armistice pacts with Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, Israel was anxious for a period of stability that would allow it to absorb hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors from Europe.

But its leaders were in no rush, confident that the defeated Arabs would hold their fire at least for a few years. They saw the armistice pacts as building blocks that would preserve Israel's borders, lead to settlement of other issues and then bring a full peace.

Secret proposal

Syria's leader, Hosni Zaim, an army colonel who took power in a coup just days before the talks began, had bigger ideas.

Early in the negotiations, he privately proposed moving beyond the armistice to a comprehensive Israeli-Syrian agreement and sought a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. As a lure, he said Syria was willing to absorb at least a quarter-million Palestinian refugees and resettle them with the help of Western aid.

Israelis were intrigued, but in the end demurred, offering to send lower-ranking officials to meet with Zaim. The proposal never took hold.

Since then, historians have debated whether Ben-Gurion missed a golden opportunity for peace that could have averted five decades of Middle East belligerence and prevented the 1967 and 1973 wars.

In his book about the armistice, Israeli Aryeh Shalev argues that the chances of moving directly from a state of war to full peace with Syria were more realistic than using the armistice as a steppingstone.

Even if nothing were to come of it, he went on, Ben-Gurion should at least have gone through with a direct meeting with the leader of a major Arab power.

"By holding the meeting, the Israelis would have obtained legitimacy for such encounters, and at a high level," Shalev wrote. Israel would wait 30 years before a dominant Arab leader, Anwar Sadat, met openly with its prime minister.

Objection, suspicions

Why the reluctance? Zaim coupled his proposal with a territorial demand that Israel opposed. It would have given Syria control of half the Sea of Galilee, source of a third of Israel's water. Moreover, Zaim's hold on power was shaky; he was overthrown and killed the month after the armistice. His proposal drew opposition from his own foreign minister.

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