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Israeli Attitude On Assad: Respect Him and Suspect Him With PM-US-Mideast

July 20, 1991

JERUSALEM (AP) _ In Israel, the name of Syrian President Hafez Assad evokes an old Hebrew maxim: ″Respect him and suspect him.″

Israelis hold Syria in contempt on many counts. They see a country that engineers terrorist outrages, mistreats its Jewish minority, spews out virulent anti-Semitic propaganda, harbors a Nazi war criminal, trafficks in drugs, mass-murders political enemies and joins every war waged against the Jewish state.

Yet Assad the man earns grudging respect.

This week, when Assad revived U.S. peace efforts by supporting President Bush’s proposals for an Arab-Israeli conference, the expressions of skepticism from Israel were laced with tones of admiration.

The old fox had done it again, they marveled. He had bided his time and almost lulled the Israelis into thinking he would boycott the U.S. peace effort - thus relieving the pressure on Israel for concessions.

And then he had struck without warning, managing not only to appear the peacemaker but to gain maximum exposure by doing it during the London summit of the Western economic powers.

Dr. Yossi Olmert, a scholar of Syrian affairs, calls Assad ″a respected and worthy enemy.″

With Assad, ″you know whom you’re up against - somebody who is militant and aggressive and yet is somehow responsible and pragmatic, as opposed to the hoodlum, streetfighter image of Saddam Hussein,″ says Olmert, who heads Israel’s Government Press Office.

Friday’s Jerusalem Post contained no fewer than three long articles attempting to fathom Assad’s latest moves. The headlines spoke for themselves: ″The Fox of Damascus Prowls in Lebanon″; ″What’s Behind Assad’s Latest Move?″

And there were two cartoon portraits of the mustachioed, bullet-headed Syrian Israelis have known for 20 years. One of them showed him hunched over a chessboard, moving pieces representing President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Many Israelis had expected Assad’s influence to decline with the loss of his long-time backer, the Soviet Union. Instead, he seems to be standing taller than ever, having backed the U.S.-led coalition during the Gulf crisis - again, to the astonishment of Israelis.

Assad confounds conventional wisdom on both sides of the Israeli political spectrum.

When hard-liners say the Arabs can’t be trusted to keep their word, moderates point to Assad, who has never violated an agreement with Israel.

When moderates argue the case for striking a deal with Assad, hard-liners point to his regime’s human rights record, and its anti-Semitism.

″The Matzoh of Zion,″ by Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, may never make the bestseller lists, but Israelis know it as a book that recycles some of history’s ugliest anti-Semitic myths.

Israelis also know about Alois Brunner, a Nazi who rounded up French Jews and sent them to concentration camps, then moved to Syria in 1954 and allegedly became an adviser to the country’s police.

And few Israelis doubt that Syria is responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks on Israel, and will probably engineer more attacks, if it suits Assad’s strategies.

″To the Israeli public, Assad is a bad man, a very dangerous man. I think the public knows exactly who he is,″ says Ehud Yaari, Israel Television’s respected Arab affairs analyst.

Most Israeli experts believe that while Assad may strike a no-war agreement with Israel in return for the Golan Heights, he will never accept a full peace like that Israel has with Egypt.

At the same time, says Yaari, ″No serious person in Israel thinks Syria will go to war with Israel alone... So the assessment is that Syria is no immediate threat.″

Most Israelis laugh at the notion of yielding the Golan Heights, which they captured from Syria in the 1967 war. They remember how Syrian artillery battered Israeli villages from the strategic plateau.

But Yaari doesn’t think Syria needs the land badly enough to pay a price for it.

″It is almost self-evident that for the Syrians, certainly Assad, the future of the Golan is not pressing, and they will always want the Palestinian issue to come first,″ he says.

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