Syrian President Bashar al-Assad criticized the Palestinians for linking the peace negotiations to a settlement freeze, saying “we are against putting settlements at the center of peace talks…for this is a mistake.” He stressed that the real issue is one of land, saying that Syria has not brought up the issue of [Israeli] settlements in the Golan Heights because territory will be returned “with or without settlements” and therefore there is no point brining up this issue as “those that want to talk about the peace process must talk about territorial restitution and not about settlements.”
This is all well and good, but what would happen if the Palestinians agreed to negotiate with the Israelis without first conditioning a settlement freeze? Firstly, it is certain that the Syrians would criticize [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas, and the Arabs who support him, saying that they had abandoned Palestinian territory and sold out the Palestinian Cause. Hamas would also certainly join in this attack on Abbas and the Arabs. However does this absolve the Palestinian Authority from criticism? Of course not.
President al-Assad’s words are a new lesson in how Arabs waste opportunities; even if this is an opportunity to do nothing more than embarrass the Israelis. This also shows how the Arab division presents Israel with one opportunity after another to frustrate every serious attempt to reach the desired peace, not to mention embarrass those who want to help us [achieve this], like US President Barack Obama.
We were, and still are, among those who criticized linking the negotiations with a settlement freeze, because this is an Israeli ploy, for everybody knows that in the event of a peace being reached settlements will be removed in the same manner that this occurred during the Egyptian – Israeli peace which saw Israel withdrawing from Sinai. This is exactly what Syrian President al-Assad said on Thursday, saying that “the land will return with or without settlements.” Therefore the mistake made by the Palestinian Authority – and also the Arab moderates – was to fall into the Israeli trap and waste a real opportunity – thanks to the presence of a US president such as Obama – to advance the peace negotiations.
The Palestinian mistake – which was repeated by the Arab moderates – was in their expectation of criticism from the naysayers, like Syrians, should they support the position of Mahmoud Abbas and not call condition a settlement freeze [prior to the negotiations]. The difference today is that it is the Syrian president who is criticizing this linking of the negotiations with a settlement freeze, when it was the Syrians themselves who repeatedly refused to provide the Palestinians with Arab support to continue negotiating with the Israelis [after the Israeli settlement freeze ended].
Therefore the lesson today is that we must disregard the opinions of the naysayers in our region, for such opinions will always be held, for sometimes this is their most important source of their strength. So here we see the Syrian president – in the same statement – criticizing Washington which was exerting efforts on two levels, with the Syrians and the Palestinians, to achieve peace, saying that the US effort “has not achieved anything.” This statement alone is enough to sum up the entire story, for the Syrians want to say; “What about us?” And so the question that must be asked here is: have the Arabs, and more importantly the Americans understood this message?
It is clear that Damascus wants to say that anybody that ignores it in the peace process will pay the price; however the reality is that it is the entire region that is paying this price, whilst Israel is continually benefiting from this. Therefore the lesson that we must learn from everything that has happened is that it is up to the moderates to advocate moderation and utilize all the cards in their possession without worrying about what others will say, from the naysayers to the cautious. What matters are results, not the slogans that we have become addicted to.