Newly-freed terrorist Samir Kuntar continued his post-incarceration career this week with an appearance at the Syrian-Israeli border on the Golan Heights. Earlier in the day Kuntar had received Syria’s Order of Merit (or according to other reports, an honorary title as sergeant) from President Bashar Assad in a meeting in Damascus. At the Golan border Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze, was backed by hundreds of Syrian Druze and shouted to a few hundred Israeli Druze: “I’m telling you, President Assad will soon wave the Syrian flag over the Golan.”
Kuntar was released by Israel in July in an exchange for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah two years before that, a kidnapping that sparked the Second Lebanon War. He had been jailed since 1979 for murdering three people as part of a terrorist attack in the Israeli coastal town of Nahariya.
Some Israelis were appalled at the swap — which included four other live terrorists and the bodies of two hundred others along with Kuntar — particularly given the special heinousness of Kuntar’s crimes. In Nahariya back on April 22, 1979, after killing a policeman, he took a man and his four-year-old daughter hostage down to the beach, shot the man dead in front of the daughter, then killed the girl by smashing her head on the rocks.
Assad feted him on Monday with the words: “His being here with us and his determination to promote Arab rights, despite everything he’s been through, has turned him into a symbol of the struggle for freedom across the Arab world and the whole world.” But it was just the latest in the encomiums Kuntar has garnered since being freed.
It started back on July 16, the day of his release, when Lebanon awarded him a state ceremony at Beirut Airport where he was officially received by President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
The festivities continued the next day in his home village of Aabey where Walid Jumblatt, a fellow Druze and leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, and Mohammad Fneish, labor minister and Hezbollah official, sang his praises to the crowd. At the time Israeli Middle East scholar Barry Rubin wrote that “No one in the Arabic-speaking world will say a single negative word about Kuntar’s deed or his being made a hero, despite a small liberal minority’s disgust.”
Also getting in on the act was Palestinian Authority president and much-lauded, purported moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who sent greetings to Kuntar as his Fatah party organized a rally in Ramallah to celebrate Kuntar’s release and the return of the remains of a legendary Palestinian female terrorist. That wasn’t enough for Abbas, who in late August met with Kuntar in Beirut during a visit to Lebanon.
Though Kuntar’s treatment since being freed is just one, if perhaps particularly striking, small detail in the Arab world’s anti-Israeli ethos, it offers a convenient dividing line between two mindsets on Israel’s conflict with the Arabs. On one side are those who take note of the lionization of this child-killer, talk about it and write about it, feel shocked and that it perhaps even goes beyond their already dim expectations.
On the other side are those for whom it makes no difference — not even the fact that both extreme figures like the Hezbollah minister and Syrian dictator Assad, and moderate or reputedly moderate figures like Siniora and Abbas, take part in glorifying Kuntar as a hero and a model.
For instance, for Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Washington Post last Friday, “the current situation is such that the opportunity for success [in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking] has never been greater.” But for veteran peace processor Aaron David Miller in an article two days later, “a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians may no longer be possible. … I would … suggest to President-elect Barack Obama … that he recognize there’s no deal in this negotiation now. … Instead, go all-out for an Israeli-Syrian agreement. ”
Among the optimists on the Syrian tack count also part of the Israeli defense establishment, which believes Assad can be lured out of his deep enmeshment in the terror axis with the Golan Heights and other Western favors. As for outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, after living most of his life as a skeptical hawk he now sees peace sprouting all over and is an enthusiast of both the Palestinian and Syrian tacks.
It’s true that Israel signed a peace treaty three decades back with Sadat of Egypt; he lost his life for it soon after, and today Egypt is an epicenter of anti-Semitism and Sinai is — under Cairo’s at best neglectful eye — a smuggling route for the ever-mounting Hamas war on Israel from Gaza. It’s also true Israel has an important, stabilizing peace with the Jordanian government, while the population remains among the most anti-Semitic in the world.
And when it comes to Syria and the Palestinians, the territories in question — the Golan and the West Bank, respectively — are of even greater security significance than Gaza, whose loss has meant daily rocket fire on southern Israel.
But for the unflappable peace-mongers, Israel can’t hand over the Golan and the West Bank, as well, to the Kuntar-admirers too soon; some of us aren’t that stupid.