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MIDDLE EAST: Peace, But Not This Year

5 minute read

“We are either at war or at peace,” argues Syrian President Hafez Assad. At the moment Assad and other Arab leaders are opting for peace. The Syrian leader and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat recently smoothed over a lengthy feud involving Syrian intervention in Lebanon; last week Jordan’s King Hussein and Sadat met to discuss peace strategies and Palestinian statehood.

Assad, who moved his troops into Lebanon to end “savage massacres” and remove a roadblock in the way of a Geneva conference, is currently the key figure in the peacemaking. In a 90-minute interview in Damascus with TIME’s Wilton Wynn last week, he outlined his views on terms and timing of a settlement, on Palestinian participation, and on the need for the U.S. to be still more evenhanded in its Middle East dealings. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Do you foresee peace this year?

A. I don’t want to be pessimistic to the extent of losing all hope. At the same time, I don’t want to be optimistic to the extent of converting facts into dreams. We are making every possible political and diplomatic effort to achieve a just solution, but I don’t see anything that makes me believe that [it] will be achieved during 1977. We may start moving on the road in 1977, but the end of the road is not in sight in my view.

Q. What about settlement terms?

A. A just solution is a solution under which all grievances and injustices are removed so that there will be no territory occupied by others. Such a solution can be embodied in these three terms: 1) withdrawal by Israel from territories occupied since 1967; 2) ensuring the rights of the Arab people of Palestine; 3) ending the state of war.

Q. Would you accept special security guarantees for the Golan Heights?

A. We may agree to discuss certain kinds of guarantees, provided that such guarantees are equal on the Arab side and the Israeli side. All this must be within the framework of a just and peaceful solution. For example, if [that] solution requires the presence of a United Nations observer force or a U.N. emergency force on the line that divides the two parties, then we are willing to discuss this, provided that the presence is on both sides of the line. Again, it is possible to discuss the idea of a demilitarized zone, provided it is of narrow limits and on both sides.

Q. Do you favor a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state linked to Jordan?

A. We favor the establishment of such a state so long as the Palestinians seek it. We give our blessing to any link that may be established between Jordan and a Palestinian state if such a link is favored [by] both sides.

Q. If a settlement is reached, what kind of document are you prepared to sign?

A. In the context of achieving a just peace, we agree to sign such a document as the one stipulated in U.N. resolutions, which indicates the transfer from a state of war to a state of peace; namely, a document ending the state of belligerency. This document is a peace document. All efforts for peace, including the Geneva Conference, are taking place within the framework of the U.N. and under the aegis of the two superpowers. Our concern is to achieve peace, and the document to be signed should be a peace document. To make it clearer: we are either in a state of war or in a state of peace.

Q. When will Geneva convene?

A. The recent U.N. resolution stressed that the Geneva Conference should be convened not later than March, and of course we favor that resolution. Nevertheless, the Geneva Conference may not be reconvened within this period for several reasons, in the forefront of which is Israeli intransigence. Also, the new American Administration may need time to prepare for it.

Q. Should there be a single Arab delegation including the P.L.O.?

A. I prefer that the Arabs go to Geneva represented in a unified, single Arab delegation. This question is subject to discussion between us and our brothers at the proper time..The agreement which we eventually reach on the subject will be the agreement which takes Arab interests into consideration.

Q. Suppose the P.L.O. refuses to go?

A. If the P.L.O. does not desire to participate in the Geneva Conference, we will not exert any pressure on them to participate. In this case, the Arab states concerned will have to meet and decide what to do toward liberating occupied Arab territories and to ensure the rights of the Arab people of Palestine. But I must make clear that if the P.L.O. refrains from participating at Geneva, this would not paralyze the movement of the Arab countries concerned. We will not change any of the objectives of the Arab struggle—namely, the withdrawal of Israel from Arab territory and the rights of the Arabs of Palestine.

Q. How do you view the U.S. role?

A. We have no doubt that the role of the U.S. with regard to what is happening in this area is a major role. However, our constant criticism of this role is that it does not conform to the special responsibilities of the U.S. and its huge interests in this region. It also does not conform to the lofty principles for which the American people have fought and struggled. If the American role should develop in such a way as to conform to the special responsibilities of the U.S. as a superpower, to the interests of the American people and to the principles for which they stand, then the American role will be more effective in achieving a just peace in this area.

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