Syrians Ambivalent On Peace With Israel


THERE can be few Syrians who pray for peace with Israel as fervently as Mahana Nahli.

His white walrus moustache bristling, Mr. Nahli stood squinting into the sun on a hillside one recent Friday morning and talked to his daughter the only way he can; he shouted at her through a megaphone across 300 yards of no man's land.

Nahli had the misfortune of being away from his village of Ain Tinya in June 1967, when Israeli troops stormed the Golan Heights. Since then, he has lived in Damascus. His daughter lives in Israeli-occupied territory. Their only means of communication is to stand on each slope of the ``Valley of Cries'' and shout.

``Peace would mean seeing my grandchildren for the first time,'' Nahli said. ``And the land - I was born here. The most important thing would be for me to go back to where I was born.''

But with nothing so concrete to look forward to, most of Nahli's fellow Syrians - brought up to hate Israel and Israelis - are much more hesitant about the prospect of peace.

``This is a forced marriage, a shotgun marriage, not a love affair,'' says one prominent Syrian intellectual, who asked not to be identified. If peace comes, he adds, ``for many, many years, it's going to be cold.''

``It is still very difficult'' to adapt to the idea of peace with Israel, admits Suheil Zakar, a professor of history at Damascus University. ``I have learned two things as a Muslim in the past 50 years: There is one God, and there is one enemy, the Israeli.''

In a country where schools, universities, newspapers, television, and every public institution inculcate a fierce hostility toward Israel into every citizen, ``it is not easy for the authorities to back off from this,'' explains a social researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``First, they themselves have to make their language smoother, to convince themselves, and then pass this conviction to the people.''

That process appears to have begun, albeit slowly. On Oct. 6, during the ruling Baath Party's celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel, the banners did not carry the traditional slogans about ``standing ready to confront the Zionist enemy.'' Instead, they declared ``We are ready for peace.''

But for Syrians, the question goes beyond the return of the Golan Heights - Damascus's minimum price for a peace treaty. It is Israel's existence itself that still catches in their throats.

``You can have an authoritarian government like [President Hafez] Assad's that can make anything stick,'' the intellectual points out. ``But popular acceptance of Israel is another story.''

Asked whether she accepts that Israel has the right to exist, the social researcher - a sophisticated and well traveled woman - is ambivalent. ``In my heart, no,'' she says. ``In my head, yes.''

That leads to great uncertainty about what peace might mean. ``If I met an Israeli in Damascus, face to face,'' she says, ``I don't know what I would say, or how he would respond. It's not enough to be two human beings.... We, like they, are children of this era, and you cannot erase that with a signature on a treaty.''

Professor Zakar is even blunter. ``If there was peace, and I was invited to lecture in Israel, I wouldn't go, and if I were asked to receive an Israeli scholar in my library I would not do so,'' he says. ``I cannot change that deeply.''

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ``is fooling himself if he thinks peace will be full enough to include free and open trade and tourism from here,'' says a Western diplomat. ``If the Israelis find their peace with Egypt cold, peace with Syria would be icy.''

Though some of Syria's bigger businessmen say they look forward to the economic benefits of peace, and most Syrians say peace is inevitable, that hardly translates into enthusiasm.

``War and peace is not like a switch that you can turn on and off,'' says Gen. Abdulrazak Dardari, chief of operations in the Syrian Army during the 1973 war. ``Arabs and Zionists have been in conflict for maybe 100 years of mutual hatred.

``We'll need many, many years to settle our feelings,'' he predicts. ``Maybe my son Abdallah's son will one day shake hands with an Israeli.''

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