The SSNP and the Middle East Peace Process
Dr. Adel Beshara
At this point of history in which the international community is attempting to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is fundamentally important to canvass the opinions and sentiments of groups on both sides of the political spectrum. I say both sides because the response to the present International Peace Conference is not unanimous either way. In the Arab states of geographic Syria, for example, opinions are deeply divided over the wisdom and character of this latest effort. In contrast to the optimism, or degree of it, that one is certain to find at the state and government institutional level, the feeling within the general population, in particular among its radical organizations and secular intellectual groups, is that the conflict is not likely to be resolved if efforts continue to deal with elements of the problem, rather than the entire complex of issues which have never been fully settled. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party or SSNP is a living symbol of this feeling. For many years, this party has been highly skeptical about peace with Israel and its skepticism was re-affirmed during the present international conference. In a statement released on the eve of the Madrid session and appearing in the party's paper al-Bina', it bluntly declared:
We are unconcerned with what is called the peace conference and there can be no peace so long as any Jewish usurpation remains in any part of our national homeland.(1)
The main political objective of the SSNP is the reunification of geographic Syria into a secular modern state. The party is numerically insignificant. But it has profound political influence in Lebanon and the Arab Republic of Syria. The party regards itself as 'a systematic counter plan to the Zionist movement' and since the Six Day War its members had had a key role in some of the most dedicated anti-Zionist organizations including Black September. In recent years, the party has attacked Israeli forces in the so-called self-declared security zone and inside Israel by itself and jointly with other groups. For these reasons, the SSNP's views on peace deserve to be better known and studied.
While the account that follows does no more than sketch out the key elements in its vision, it is hoped that its exposition may inspire more interest in conceptions of peace among current secular Arab groups. The SSNP's attitude toward peace in general and the present International Conference in particular is based on three basic considerations:
First, is the atmosphere against which the present negotiations are taking place. As a Syro-Arabic movement, though with a strong Pan-Syrian tincture, the SSNP finds little wisdom in inaugurating peace talks at a time when there is such a disparity of strength between the participating parties. It points out that the destruction of Iraqi military power and the rapid disintegration of the Socialist Bloc and the Soviet Union, have greatly tilted the balance in favour of Israel and its main political and military backer in the region, the United States. In the face of this situation, any settlement is bound to be one-sided and may possibly reproduce the resentment and hatred which are deeply embedded in the whole conflict. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party is aware that any peace settlement even under the present circumstances, will also exact sacrifices from Israel. But it points out that these sacrifices are really insignificant when measured against the gains it stands to make. Peace in the face of the existing imbalance, it is claimed, would not only preserve Israel's military and economic superiority, but it would also enhance its status as a regional power. Add to this recognition and greater accessibility to the Arab World, it may even help it to dictate the future of the whole region. Further, it is claimed that within the same general framework, Arab countries will not profit, but can only lose from peace. In the short run, they may recover the territories usurped by Israel during the Six Day War, but their hands will be forever tied behind their backs. They will be deprived of fundamental rights and their freedom will be curtailed by terms and conditions which serve only Israel. In a strongly-worded statement published in the Beirut-based al-Bina', the SSNP has described this Israeli-style peace as follows: It is not that Israel genuinely desires a peace with the Arab Regimes or their military establishments, but rather a complete surrender to her from the very core of our so- ciety, and by its total structure which would encompass every unit that makes it up. It seeks a capitulation to it and to its way of thinking in our schools and in our text books as well as at every level of our curricula, so that any minor text uses the term 'the Israeli enemy' it would be regarded as a violation to the spirit of the contract-ual peace. (2)
The core of the SSNP's argument is that if the Arab states wish to negotiate for peace they should do so from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness. The second major consideration for the SSNP is national, non-political. According to its ideology, the whole of Geographical Syria, including Palestine, is the possession of the nation down through all its generations. This means that no individual generation has the right to renounce any portion of its territory to anybody, and that no popular or political institution or other regime that might preside over the existing national sub-entities can have any such right. If such a renunciation occurred, as might happen if Israel is afforded full recognition over part of Palestine, it could not bind the nation (in this case the whole of geographic Syria) and its future generations have the right to revolt against it and to struggle to free the country from it as soon as they become able. Two basic implications arise from this conception:
(1) that international legality remains such only to the extent that it protects the rights of nations and enables them to lead an independent life; and
(2) that if an existing peace settlement is not just, it may be violated, even if it is laid down in an international agreement.
As far as the SSNP is concerned, the international community has violated the national and fundamental rights of Greater Syria twice: once in 1920 by allowing its political dismemberment to go ahead and the other in 1948 with the creation of Israel. It is about to do the same thing all over again this time by allowing undemocratically elected regimes in the sub-entities of Greater Syria and segment of its population, namely the Palestinians, to decide the fate of Palestine. To the SSNP, the destiny of Palestine or any portion of national land is the sole right of geographical Syria, though not in its present form. The SSNP tried to get this message across from the beginning of the Palestine problem.
In a response published in the wake of the UN 1947 resolution to split Palestine in half, it derlared: Neither Britain, the Soviet Union, America; nor, indeed, Egypt or Arabia has any title to determine Palestine's future. The whole General Assembly of the United Nations can have no right to impose on the Syrian nation resolutions that divest the Syrian nation of sovereignty over its homeland or its right over its own territory. The whole General Assembly of the United Nation can have no right to intentionally abrogate the rights of free na- tions to determine their destinies by themselves.
(3) The SSNP, therefore, rejects any peace which does not recognizes Syria's right of self-determination. In the present international conference, it has repeatedly emphasized that if the United States and other Western nations are genuinely interested in a full-fledged solution, they should observe this right as a fundamental requirement. This is because self-determination, as an internationally esteemed principle, was the main engine of their own quest for peace and the edifice upon which their national existence was firmly established. The third main consideration for the SSNP is perhaps the most important. Peace, according to it, is unlikely to come about so long as efforts continue to focus on the symptoms of the conflict rather than its causes. This a common perception among secular Arabs although its interpretation varies from one group to another. The view of the SSNP is that the single most important cause of the Palestine problem is Zionist ideology and that, as such, unless this cause is eradicated peace in the Middle East is out of the question. This view of Zionism as the cause of the conflict originated with Antun Sa'adeh, the SSNP's founder and its indisputable leader between 1932 and 1949. Sa'adeh took an extremely dim view of Zionism. At one stage, back in 1925, he wrote: Despite that the Zionist movement is not rotating around a natural axis, yet, this movement has been able to make si- gnificant progress. If no other systematic counterplan st-ands in its face, it will eventually succeed.
(4) After 1932, when the SSNP came into existence, Sa'adeh emphasized another important feature of Zionism. Zionism, he argued, was a mere ruse in a long-term conspiracy to establish an exclusively Jewish state in Syria. That state was of course "Biblical Israel": a geographical area including parts of what are today Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Herein lay the danger of Zionism: Had its work being merely to improve Jewish life in Palestine it would have posed no real problem. Had its aim been to create a nation of a Jewish complexion within which the Palestinians are guaranteed their civil and political rights it would have posed a problem of a certain degree. But it really works to achieve a nation of Jews by expropriating the land and transfering its entire population. The SSNP, following in Sa'adeh's footsteps, argues that since Israel came into the world as a result of extraneous circumstances, peace with her means the recognition of injustice. Such a peace, which gives approval to an abnormal situation is, in principle, self-contradictory, for peace and injustice cannot coexist. Peace can be established only after the wrong is rectified and justice is done. It is a testimony not against peace but against an unjust peace. The need to recognize justice as an essential characteristic of peace has often been a fundamental part of Arab political rhetoric. For the SSNP, however, it is a great deal more than a political demand: it is a matter of deep ideological interest. The party rejects the Zionist idea, and consequently the existence of Israel, on two fundamental grounds. First, it does not accept the claim that World Jewry has a character and a life of its own and, that like any other nation, it is entitled to claim the rights and privileges of a nation.
Historically, it was Herzel who advanced this claim and it was because he perceived it as an effective instrument in normalizing the anomalous position of the Jewish people. The SSNP regards such a claim as a utopian aberration that involves a wilful misreading of history. The Jews, it argues, might, assuming that they would care to be united as a group or could be so united, form some kind of a religious brotherhood but they are not a nation in any sense of the word. The Jewish people are not any longer a nation because they are a people without any specific country and without therefore a common life. A nation, it points out, is a community which, in contrast to others such as family, tribe, or religious body, is characteristically associated with a particular territory. For the SSNP, the Jews formed neither a nationality not a nation. The former is a term expressive of common ethnic descent of a people, though the ethnos need not necessarily be pure and rarely is. A nation, on the other hand, represents a political entity which might consist of a single nationality, but it is also possible, and under modern conditions, for several several nationalities to be represented in the nation. The Jewish people, according to the SSNP, is not a single nationality but part of many different nationalities. There are Russian Jews, American Jews, German Jews, etc,. In fact, Jews can be found in almost every nationality. Some scholars of history and nationalism have objected to this interpretation on the ground that Jews are not the only ones who scattered everywhere. Syrians, Greeks, Italians, Portuguese and others also have their own separate diasporas. But to the SSNP such an analogy is misleading because it fails to take into consideration that none of these groups or those with a similar background had ever ceased to be a nationality. Unlike the Jews, they are merely immigrants from a wider community belonging to a specific country. There is no unity among the Jews except that represented by the bond of a common religion and to a certain degree a common culture. Zionists disagree with this interpretation. They argue that the Jews are a nation not a religious community and that, in any case, they are the latter only because they are the former. Michael Selzer, for instance, suggests that "Unique historical conditions which brought the life of the Jewish nation under the dominance of religion converted Judaism into an all-embracing world view which encampasses religious, ethical, social, messianic, political and philosophical elements."5
The SSNP does not see any wisdom in this view party because it regards nationalism and religion as two separate areas of human existence and partly because "we cannot designate the Jews as a nation any more than we can designate the Moslems or Christians as a nation." The second reason for the SSNP's total denial of Israel is based on a purely historical consideration. The party rejects the claim that the Jewish people have an inherent and inalienable right to Palestine. Such a claim, it argues, has no legal or factual basis. From a historical perspective, the modern Jews have neither national nor covenant continuity with the Jews of Biblical Israel. The Jews who migrated to Palestine in the recent past and established there the modern state of Israel were, for the most part, descendants of converts to Judaism and possess no racial links with the traditional Jews who lived in Palestine in Biblical times. The party insists that the argument of a Jewish tie with the Children of Israel is a forgery which fits in 'with the attributes of treachery and connivance.' The Jews, it argues, are a mixed breed, containing elements from every race. Throughout history, many groups and individuals have converted to Judaism and many Jews became Christians and Moslems and joined the population of their respective countries. Here again, the party calls for common sense especially from the Western World whose sciences have long ago established that like Christians and Moslems, the Jews have engaged with great zeal in the conversion of people to their faith.
The SSNP also rejects the judicial basis of this claim which had its origin in the Balfour Declaration issued in November, 1917, by the British Government. It has described such a Declaration as a mere political statement that lacked complete judicial basis. The value of this declaration, it declared, is that it is a political declaration that binds the British state to the Jews. As such, it has no judicial value whatsoever: it in no way binds either Syria or the people of Palestine. The Declaration was felt to be an intolerable insult and contradicted the covenant of the League of Nations concerning the application of the mandate over geographic Syria. All three of SSNP's criticisms are aspects of a single idea: Zionism has no practical or ideological importance of any sort. It is only a jumble of polemical suggestions and empty slogans that revolve around eclectic and shallow ideas. Its ability to perpetuate is due in large part to foreign aid and its own sophisticated propaganda machine. If this is the context within which the solution of the Palestine problem is to be treated, then peace, according to the SSNP, can take one of two possible alternative courses. One such course would be the elimination of the state of Israel by either peaceful or belligerent means. Although this option is clearly incompatible with the prevailing world atmosphere in which peace is regarded as an imperative necessity and an aim which overrides any ideological or historical difference, it is the one option most favoured by the SSNP.
The other alternative course is a peace which would lead to the re-establishment in Palestine of a free and democratic secular state. The SSNP would probably accept a peace of this type provided, however, it would lead, as part of the same overall process, to the complete and total dismantling of Zionism, both as an idea and movement. It is obvious from the preceding discussion that the SSNP is a rejectionist and hard line party. It is not prepared to make the kind of concessions which the PLO has already made. This is partly due to its deep ideological heritage as well as for its present belief that while Zionism may fain moderation during the existing talks, it remains as untrustworthy as ever. Ironically, the SSNP finds itself in agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as the Hozballah Party of Lebanon, even though they are far apart on every other single issue. Indeed, the present peace conference has brought together, perhaps for the first time, the radical secularists and the anti-secular forces among the Arabs of geographic Syria in a united front.
(1) al-Bina', No. 808 (2/11/1991).
(2) al-Bina', No. 800 (10/8/1991).
(3) Sa'adeh A, Staqes of the Palestine Question, Beirut, 1978, p. l00.
(4) Ibid, p. 25.
(5) Selzer M, Zionism Reconsidered: The Reiection of Jewish Normalcy, Macmillan, NY, 1970, p. l47.
(6) Sa'adeh A, Islam in its Two Messaqes, Beirut, 1975, p. 178