Why Did Syria Call Israel's Prime Minister a "Terrorist"?By Richard H. Curtiss
December/January 1991/92, Page 41
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
On the fifth day of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa produced an old British "wanted" photo of a young Jewish terrorist. He was responding to charges by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that Syria supports "terrorism. " The Syrian reaction was understandable, but a tactical blunder.
Until that moment, an international noose had been tightening around Israel's intransigent prime minister. George Bush's threat to link future aid to Israel to the peace process looked easier and easier to accomplish.
Then, with the Syrian's words, the US media focus changed, and two Washington Post reporters were able to write, straight-faced, that ''the week's most dramatic demonstration was the Syrian display of aggressiveness toward Israel."
Syrians live in a vanished mid-century world where the Cold War set the tone of international politics. US and Western European public opinion was meaningless, because Syria's support came from the USSR. Syrians seem unable to realize now, in the absence of Soviet support, that their best defense is to see that America's Cold War client loses its support as well.
Probably fewer than 50 of 535 members of the US Congress truly support Likudist Israel. The rest would follow a firm presidential lead in cutting unconditional aid to Israel. But these politicians would prefer to ride on a tide of changing American public opinion. This is what most of the Palestinians at Madrid understood. The Syrians, alone, didn't know how to support that change.
The Palestinians explained over and over their utterly reasonable requests. They returned smiles, shook Israeli hands when they were extended, and went right on talking. They won a major public opinion victory.
The Syrians, with an equally comprehensible case to present, tucked their hands behind them, and returned scowl for scowl with the grim but glib Israelis. A Syrian spokesman even declined to acknowledge questions from Israeli journalists.
In the words of Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, " Here was the Arab that Shamir's Likud party has come to know, hate and rely on. " Referring to Syria's delegates, Israeli Ambassadorto the US Zalman Shoval joked on television, "I want to deny the rumor that we paid them to help our information effort."
Madrid was not a disaster for the Syrians, who have everything to gain from negotiations. But it immensely complicated Secretary of State James Baker's strategy of focusing the media spotlight on Israeli intransigence. The media, instead, focused on the scowling Syrian, and stubbornly ignored the Palestine police mugshot he was holding.
It was a photo of an undersized gunman still known by his Polish name, Yitzhak Yizernitzky. He was one of the Jewish extremists who, between 1937 and 1939, killed more than 300 Arab civilians by machine-gunning passing buses and bombing open air restaurants and marketplaces. On one July day in 1938, they rolled an oil drum laden with explosives downhill into a bus stop in Haifa, killing 35 men, women and children and leaving others maimed and bleeding.
When World War II began, one group of these terrorists, called Irgun Zvai Leumi and headed by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, declared a cease-fire with the British. The other group, Lehi, the Hebrew acronym for "Fighters for the Freedom of Israel " tried to ally itself first with fascist Italy, then with Nazi Germany and finally with Stalinist Russia.
Lehi became known as the ''Stern Gang" after its founder, Avraham Stern, who eventually was killed by the British, while his followers killed some 300 British policemen and soldiers. Leadership passed to a triumvirate consisting of Yizernitzky, Israel Sheib and Nathan Friedman-Yellin. They ordered the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the British governor general of Cairo.
Yizernitzky was captured and interned by the British in Eritrea. With other prisoners he dug his way out of the prison camp, however, and smuggled himself back to Palestine early in 1948. He also adopted a Hebrew name, Yitzhak Shamir.
In April 1948, Lehi and Irgun gunmen massacred the men, women, and children of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, which had been neutral in the fighting between Arabs and Jews that broke out after the 1947 partition resolution. The massacre took place a month before the British withdrew, the state of Israel was proclaimed and Arab military units from Jordan, Iraq and Egypt entered Palestine. The terror inspired by the massacre explains the ease with which Israel's army cleared Palestinian villages of their occupants in the months of fighting that followed.
Assassinating a Peace MediatorShamir and the other two Lehi leaders set out in July 1948 to assassinate the UN peace mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte. They feared he would negotiate a cease-fire that would force Israeli forces to withdraw from West Jerusalem, which they had seized in defiance of the UN partition plan. The plan envisioned a Jewish and an Arab Palestinian state, with Jerusalem separate from both and under international supervision.
Lehi gunmen in Israeli uniforms intercepted Bernadotte's motorcade and pumped six bullets into Bernadotte, and 17 into a French colonel sitting beside him, killing both. Some Lehi members were arrested by Israeli police, but all were released by the time the fighting ended a few months later.
Between 1955 and 1965 Shamir served as chief of Mossad (Israel's CIA) operations in Paris. Colleagues link him to letter bombs mailed to German and other European scientists engaged in Egypt's rocket development program, and to their families.
In Paris Shamir also worked closely with his Soviet spymaster opposite numbers, a relationship that continued right up to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
After a brief attempt at business, Shamir entered politics in 1973, serving as a Member of the Knesset for Begin's Herut party. He first became Israel's prime minister in 1983, and again in 1986.
Today, when reporters ask Shamir about Bernadotte, Lord Moyne, or those hundreds of innocent civilians, he may answer, in English, "It is difficult for a person who is unaware of the circumstances of that time to understand things properly."
Perhaps the phrase also explains why Syria saved Israel from total defeat in the media battle of Madrid. It is difficult for those ''unaware of the circumstances" of their time "to understand things properly."
Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
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