Good fences make good neighbors, the American poet Robert Frost once wrote, and he oughta know. The failed farmer-turned-schoolteacher was a professional Puritan who spent his lifetime not hugging people, though he is now described as one of America s most beloved poets . That is to say: what he wrote is beloved.
Yitzhak Rabin might have celebrated Frost s sense of New England isolation if he had ever read him. During a conversation that a reporter had with the then-prime minister many years before his death, Rabin profiled the virtues of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Rabin described Assad as a man I can trust . Why? Rabin gave three reasons: when Assad made an agreement, he kept it, Assad knew how to deal with his fundamentalists , and Assad (as Rabin would have it) knew how to stay on his side of the line .
Rabin s praise of Assad should not come as a surprise: the disengagement agreement that followed the October 1973 war was never violated by Assad. And it has not been violated after his death. That Syria s allies in Lebanon might occasionally cross Israel s northern border does not count – Syria has made no agreement there, as Rabin readily admitted. Rabin, who was never one to shrink from breaking bones , also seemingly admired those who knew how to apply force when they thought it necessary. This Assad had done in February 1982, when upward of 10,000 Muslim Brothers were massacred by the Syrian army during an uprising in Hama. Rabin might now be forgiven for his third stipulation: Assad could be expected to stay on his side of the Israeli-Syrian border, so long as both Israel and Syria agreed on where that border would be. Be that as it may, what was not in doubt was whether once having signed an agreement stipulating the course of the border, Syria would keep it and stay on its side of the line.
For Yitzhak Rabin, this minimalist definition of neighborliness was more than a literary conceit, it was the bedrock principle of international comity: neighbors must keep their word, must stay out of each other s business (if the Syrians want to slaughter their fundamentalists, he implied, well then that s their affair) and occasionally meet to agree to a border, to set the fence between them. The key of course is not simply to have a fence (as Frost made clear) but to mend it together, a supposition still under discussion in the West Bank. Even so, this fundamental and minimalist concept of neighborliness is now viewed as somehow passe (even by the Israel Air Force, as it turns out), as if borders had no purpose at all.
But in the post-9/11 world, the new (and uniquely Christian) dispensation not only dictates that you tear down fences – that you love your neighbor – but that you butt into his business and bend him to your will. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the soured history of US-Syrian relations. The most obvious evidence of this was US President George W. Bush s latest inflammatory statement on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago, Bush told reporters on December 20, and the reason is he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon.
Of course, it might be useful to remember that, in the wake of 9/11, the US sought, and received, Syrian cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda – even to the point where the Syrian government provided actionable intelligence on terrorist operations that, according to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, saved American lives. It should, but cannot, go without mention that at the same moment that this Syrian-American common initiative was being promoted Syria was housing Hamas, facilitating Hezbollah, and occupying Lebanon–all stipulations that the American government conveniently overlooked so long as its good neighbor policy included persuading autocratic Arab governments to jail and torture rendered Muslims suspected of nefarious activities. In fact, President Bush s patience only ran out on President Assad when Syria decided to question America s decision to invade Iraq, a policy with which Syria disagreed.
The Bush administration never forgave Syria for its opposition to the war, Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Mustapha recently noted. He is right of course: the souring of Syrian-US relations had nothing to do with Hamas, or Hezbollah, or Lebanon – and everything to do with Iraq. Israel beware: being demonized is the price that good neighbors pay for disagreeing with American policy.
As US-Syrian relations soured, so too did the prospects for an Israeli-Syrian accommodation along the lines of the one that was nearly agreed to in March of 2000. The situation is not a crisis. And yet Israeli officials concede that while a peace agreement with Syria is eminently possible (and far easier to negotiate than one with the Palestinians), the Israeli government will not talk to the Syrians because the Americans don t want them to, which is akin to saying that Israeli foreign policy is being decided in Washington. Since that cannot possibly be true (and will be forgotten by the Israeli government just as soon as it is in its interest to do so), Israel must either exert its independence from Washington (Syria has pointed the way), or knuckle under to Washington s skewed vision of the world where, in the name of promoting democracy and fighting terrorism, borders are crossed, willy-nilly.
Put another way, the question is not whether Israel can set a wall between it and its neighbor to the north (that nearly happened once and it can happen again), but whether it agrees with the idealistic vision of neighborliness propounded by George Bush: that unless your neighbor agrees with you, you must fight him.
Mark Perryis co-director of Conflicts Forum and is based in Washington.This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org