July 31, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 2009

Tunisian Intellectual Lafif Lakhdar in Open Letter to Syrian President Assad: Shake Hands with Olmert and Greet Him with "Shalom"

July 31, 2008
North Africa, Syria, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 2009

In an open letter posted July 8, 2008 on the liberal Arab e-journal Elaph, the prominent liberal Arab intellectual Lafif Lakhdar urges Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to cut his ties with Iran, embrace domestic reforms, and follow in the footsteps of Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat in making peace with Israel.

Following are excerpts: [1]

Turkey and France Have Opened the Door to Peace with Israel For You

"To the Honorable President of the Syrian Republic:

"The prime minister of Turkey's Islamic government, Mr. Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, has opened the door to peace with Israel for you. And the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, has tried ever since his election, and is continuing to try, with difficulty, to open another door to extract Syria from the regional and international isolation into which [your] poor diplomatic decision-making has brought it.

"[This poor decision-making has ranged] from encouraging the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq to prevent its rebuilding to drowning Lebanon in problems and blood, and en route obstructing [the creation of] Palestinian national unity among Hamas, Fatah and all the Palestinian factions, under one authority and one military command – which is a prerequisite for increasing the possibility of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the emergence of a Palestinian state – this state that everyone has heard about but no one has seen. It is a known fact that no national liberation movement that is divided against itself has ever achieved its objective.

"Obstructing the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not merely a tactic to get the Golan back, but has a strategic component as well. [Syrian] president Hafiz Al-Assad's 1973 speech still rings like a slap to my ears: 'There is no Palestine,' he said; 'Palestine is southern Syria.'

"I once said to Mr. Nabil Sha'ath, at the Center for Palestine Studies... 'Palestine is trapped between the mandibles of Greater Israel and Greater Syria... may Allah come to your aid.'

"In order not to slam shut the two doors of hope that have opened before you, you must sincerely and responsibly manage to confront four great challenges: 1) correcting the error of [your] strategic alliance with Iran; 2) [arriving at] a final abandonment of [your] attempt to regain control of Lebanon; 3) regaining the Golan; and 4) [achieving] domestic reconciliation."

Your "Greatest Error... Was the Strategic Alliance with Iran's Inflammatory Extreme Right-Wing Religious Government"

"Mr. President: The crux of politics today is for the politician to understand exactly in what world we live. We live in a world that changes at the speed of light, and in which the dangers are increasing. The true politician is one who tries to adapt to this world as it is, not as he would like it to be.

"Therefore, perhaps the greatest error in [your] diplomatic decision-making was the strategic alliance with Iran's inflammatory extreme right-wing religious government.

"The contemporary international diplomatic lexicon recognizes only the government of the center: center-right and center-left, alternating peacefully in government. Other governments are shunned and have no future.

"...This alliance was accomplished with the Islamic Republic of Iran's most delirious and isolated government, domestically and abroad, to the point that one does not know whether to laugh or cry at [Iranian] President Ahmadinejad's hallucinations of the imminent return of the Hidden Imam, who from this time forth, according to the Iranian president, formulates 'Iran's domestic and foreign policies.'

"The funny thing is that the Majlis ([Iran's] parliament) debates in all seriousness on hallucinations like these. One ayatollah said: 'Far be it from the Hidden Imam that a policy leading to 20% inflation be set!'

"Former French foreign minister Doust-Blasy records in his memoirs that he and the German foreign minister could not believe their ears when President Ahmadinejad told them, at a private meeting in New York, that 'the world is in need of chaos.' He did not add, of course, that the chaos is a sign of the return of the Hidden Imam, who will achieve a 'divine victory' over the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran!

"The alliance of Syria – militarily weak and in a state of economic collapse – and Iran, is like one drowning man calling on another drowning man for help. Unless the moderate Iranian elite get rid of Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Al-Quds Brigades government, and their policies of aggression, Iran may one day find itself standing alone in a fateful confrontation with the world. And Syria may thus find itself in the same dark tunnel as its ally Iran.

"The Syria-Iran alliance is not a matter of predestination. Syria can find a preferred alternative in the Gulf petrodollars and in the investments of international companies that were, and continue to be, capable of development in Southeast Asia, India and China.

"It seems that Syria intends to emulate Iran in the matter of nuclear weaponry, which your father, president Hafiz Al-Assad, with his far-reaching vision, rejected – aware that [this weaponry] is not usable in the closely adjacent countries of the Middle East, except in the event of collective suicide... This is an extreme case – the case of existential threat – in which Syria is very unlikely one day to find itself.

"Mr. President: The Syrian-Iranian alliance entails [a Syrian] alliance with Hizbullah, the most extreme and delirious of Iranian parties in Lebanon in matters of military decision-making and achieving 'divine victory' – with the blessings of the Hidden Imam.

"You can now transform this disadvantage into an advantage. Particularly if a government formed from the alliance of Mohammad Khatami's reformists and 'Ali Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani's moderate conservatives replaces Ahmadinejad's government in Iran, [this alliance] can help disarm Hizbullah, whose weapons hinder the Lebanese government from [exercising a] monopoly on the legitimate use of force. This would transform [Hizbullah] into a political party with no claim to controlling Lebanon by force of arms.

"Such a wise decision would require you to convince some in Damascus to put out of their minds the idea of Lebanon as a 'milk cow' – and, beyond that, to encourage them to get used to full recognition of the state of Lebanon, and to draw international Syrian-Lebanese boundaries, and to [establish] mutual diplomatic relations. And, finally, to put to an end, once and for all, to the chain of assassinations of Lebanese presidents, leaders, intellectuals, and journalists that has been going on since the 1970s.

"Such courageous decisions as these are sufficient for Syria to escape its regional and international isolation, and perhaps to find a Lockerbie-type solution to the international tribunal [for the Al-Hariri assassination] that is such a nightmare for your regime."

"You Will... Not Regain the Golan by Waging a Proxy War Via Hizbullah or Hamas" or Via a Syria-Israel War

"Mr. President: You will in all probability not regain the Golan by waging a proxy war via Hizbullah or Hamas, and you are even less likely to do so via a Syria-Israel war, whose only certain outcome would be the overthrow of your regime.

"A realistic regional and international policy may – rather, will – regain it. The means of salvation are before you – mediation between you and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, by the Islamic leader of Turkey, Erdoğan. Try to transform him from mediator to arbitrator in direct negotiations between the two of you. His friendship with both Syria and Israel qualify him for this task.

"Erdoğan, who strives for stability and peace in the Middle East, is a better option for you than Ahmadinejad, who advocates jihad and martyrdom and threatens the region with nuclear convulsions.

"The policy of [the late Egyptian president Anwar Al-]Sadat, of 'breaking down the psychological barrier' between Egypt and Israel, could be a good example for you on the same path leading to Syrian-Israeli reconciliation. The landing of the Egyptian president at Ben Gurion Airport had global media reverberations [as great] as if he had landed on the surface of Mars. [Moshe] Dayan confessed to him during the Camp David negotiations, 'You, sir, are more popular than all of us in Israel.'

"In this way he regained the Sinai, and lightened the burden of arms buildup that had bled the Egyptian economy – as is the case with the Syrian economy today. Try to be the Sadat of Syria – attaching no importance to the taboos that forbid communication with and greeting the enemy, inherited from the customs and religions of primitive tribes and totemism, which were haunted by obsessionive neurosis. Also, initiating peace with the Jews and Christians is proscribed and criminalized by the Islamic jurisprudence of al-wala' wa'l-bara' [the doctrine that Muslims may only associate with and have allegiance and loyalty toward other Muslims].

"Your refusal to shake hands with Olmert, even though both of you were sitting at the same table, is a primitive vestige of this obsessive neurosis. Modernity has established, upon the ruins of these ossified taboos, the principles, laws, and customs of civilized, flexible, and humane behavior that regulate protocol relations among officials – and they do not proscribe an offer on your part to shake hands with Ehud Olmert.

"But the recovery of the Golan will require even more than a handshake. It requires you to say 'Shalom' to him with enthusiasm, and it may be that he will answer... with the same greeting or better, saying 'Salaam.'

"Such an affecting, human scene would be broadcast by the media to every home in the world, and would give you symbolic capital, of which you are in direst need, and perhaps will motivate some of the Israelis who would have voted 'No' on returning the Golan to change their minds.

"There is no place for sticking to insignificant formalities when the signing of a lasting peace is at stake – with all that it symbolizes and all that it promises of peaceful coexistence and cooperation in all fields...

"It is inappropriate that strategic thinking exhaust itself with obsessive formalities. Rather, it must address the basic issues directly, for the day after peace is signed: cooperation on economic, water resource, technological, scientific, petroleum and gas, cultural, and especially educational issues.

"Israel's curricula and teaching methods, and the competence of its teachers, are among the best in the world, whereas education in most of the Arab countries, including Syria, is poor and sterile. Throughout 5,000 years of history, the Middle East has known only wars, interrupted by brief periods of peace that coincided with brief periods of economic prosperity.

"New applied technologies can make economic prosperity permanent, and they can make peace permanent as well – as in the case of the European Union, among its modern, secular, and democratic countries...

Domestic Reform: "Begin by Freeing the Prisoners of Opinion"

"Mr. President: Let us imagine that all of the relevant sides play out their roles in this optimistic scenario perfectly. No doubt you will ask yourself: What good will it do me to gain the world and lose my people?

"One who formulates a realistic foreign policy would do well to complement it with a domestic policy that is no less realistic, with which you can remind your people, who fear raids by the security agencies, of the salad days of the Damascus Spring.

"Begin by freeing the prisoners of opinion, and even the Islamists whose hands are not stained with blood – and don't forget the members of the Damascus Declaration, who have committed no crime except calling for 'the normalization of Syrian-Lebanese relations' – something something that the writer of these lines also demands.

"Let the Kurds exercise their cultural rights freely, and speak, sing, and write in their language. Recognize their full citizenship and nationality under the International Convention for the Protection of Minority Rights.

"Extend compensation to the families of the 17,000 Islamists who have 'disappeared' since the 1970s. Likewise, compensate the families of the Lebanese and Palestinians who met the same fate.

"And this is really astonishing: How does Syrian law pardon or allow for mitigating circumstances to the perpetrators of 'honor crimes' – [a practice] which the Prophet of Islam outlawed and nullified in the third year of the hijra, in surah 24 of the Koran – while at the same time ratcheting up the punishment for democratic intellectuals and defenders of human rights?"

[1], July 8, 2008.

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