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The Greater Syria Plan and Palestine Problem

The Greater Syria Plan and Palestine Problem: Historical Roots, 1919-1939

Source: The Jerusalem Cathedra: Studies in the History, Archaeology, Geography and Ethnology of the Land of Israel, No 1, 1982, pp. 259-271.

The emergence of a relatively stable and effective regime in Syria that is pursuing a dynamic foreign policy and acquiring influence over its neighbors -- Jordan and Lebanon -- as well as over the PLO has led in recent years to the assumption that President Hafiz al-Asad is seeking to set up a political entity in the territory of Greater Syria to be dominated by the Syrian state which he heads.

This assumption is based on an analysis of the rationale which seems to underly the regional policy of the Asad regime and on a number of statements made and actions taken by its leaders and spokesmen. The best known of these statements was made in March 1974 when Asad asserted, in response to an earlier statement made by the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that "Palestine is none other than the principal part of Southern Syria." (1) Since then, Syria's leaders have made but few explicit remarks on the subject, and when asked in newspaper interviews they have tended to avoid a direct response. They have, however, frequently hinted -- particularly in 1976 and 1977-- that this was in fact their goal. Thus, Patrick Seale, a British prominent journalist and Asad's biographer, published in April 1977 an illuminating article following a special interview with Hafiz al-Asad. The article patently reflected the central motifs to give prominence at the same time. Seale noted: … Asad has been a member in the Ba'th party dedicated to Arab unity, for 30 years. Moreover, the fact that he rules in Damascus, the heartland of Arabism, makes him heir to a remorseless drive to reach out beyond Syria's national boundaries. His current unionist campaign is two-pronged. First he sees Syria's two immediate neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, as a natural extension of its territory, vital to its defense. This three – nation grouping is already a fait accompli, although in the low profile Asad manner, without fanfare. Asad now rules by proxy in Lebanon, while the progressive integration with Jordan is well advanced. If the Palestinians ever recover a West Bank homeland, they will inevitably join his complex (2).

(1) Radio Damascus, 8 March 1974. (2) The Observer, London, 6 march 1977

Similar statements were published by the Syrian media. Tishrin, the mouthpiece of the Asad regime, published an article extolling its achievements in which is stated that "political geography may have an important role in explaining the phenomenon o pan-Arab consciousness among the Syrian people, for the southern portion, that is Palestine, was severed from this steadfast country: it has lost Alexandretta, and Lebanon and Jordan and was hemmed in by the Sykes-Picot agreement". (3)

It is also very significant that the Ba'th regime employs a Lebanese journalist named Shawqi Khayrallah, a veteran activist of the Syrian Nationalist Party, in its media network. The P.P.S. (as the party was known according to the French acronym of its name) had advocated in the 1930's the creation of a Greater Syria based on a doctrine of secular territorial pan-Syrian nationalism. Khayrallah now propounds the implementation of a Greater Syria vision in a new guise. Thus, he published an article in the Syrian government newspaper al- Thawra on August 29, 1976, in anticipation of a visit by Lebanon's President, Elias Sarkis, to Damascus, in which he called for setting up a federation consisting of Syria, Lebanon Jordan and Palestine.

The connection between this development, the Palestinian problem, and the Arab-Israel conflict is clear, but two aspects should be particularly stressed. First, the agreement that the Syrian state has a special status regarding the question of the Palestinian Arabs is derived from the claim that Palestine is part of an entity called Greater Syria. In this instance, Syria's position in the Arab-Israel conflict emanates not only out of pan-Arab solidarity, as in the case of Egypt or Iraq, but out of direct involvement of one part of Greater Syria in the fate of another part. Second, the plan to set up a state or federation in the region of Greater Syria would enable Asad's regime to propose its own solution to the Palestinian component of the Arab-Israel conflict; this would call for an autonomous Palestinian state to be set up on the West Bank and tied to both Jordan and Syria in a federal framework. The Palestinians would thus be given self-expression, while the link to Jordan and Syria would ensure the stability and legitimacy of this arrangement. (4)

The advantages accruing to Syria from the implementation of such a plan are obvious: Hafiz al Asad's regime would be holding a unique key to resolving the Palestinian issue – a huge political and diplomatic asset. However, discussion of these advantages, as well as of the contradictions inherent in the proposed plan and the extensive opposition it is bound to raise, is not our concern now. (5) In the following remarks, we wish to identify the

(3) Tishrin, Damascus, 22 November 1976 (4) Similar ideas were put by the Syrian leaders to the Lebanese delegation in the summer of 1976. See al-Sayyad (Beirut), 9 September 1976. The idea was more generally developed by Albert Hourani in an article, "Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq," in A.L. Udovitch (ed.) The Middle East: Oil, Conflicy and Hope (Lexington, Mass., 1976) (5) These elements are discussed in my essay "Syria, Israel and the Palestine Question," in this book. Historical roots of the idea if a Greater Syria as the developed in the period between the two world wars, and the interplay between that plan and the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine as a recurrent theme in the political and diplomatic history of the region.

Greater Syria as a Factor in the Struggle against Zionism

One of the more intriguing aspects of the historian's craft is the insight provided by looking at the present through investigation of its historical roots and by looking at past events from the fresh perspective of the present. Thus one finds a striking similarity between some of the principal components of Asad regime's approach to the Palestinian issue, and the plan to set up an Arab federation in the region of Greater Syria with which the leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine was confronted in the 1930's and 1940's. The principal element in both cases is the assumption that the establishment of a single Arab entity in the territory of Greater Syria could serve as a basis for settling the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine or, alternatively lead to a more effective mobilization of resources for the Arab struggle against Zionism. This motif has remained a permanent element in the political and diplomatic history of the Levant, and its roots – like those of the Greater Syria plan -- are to be found in the events of World War I and in the peace settlement that followed it.

On the eve of World War I, the British Admiralty's handbook on Syria determined that Syria in its broadest sense is that land lying between the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the Arabian Desert, and that in a more narrow sense the name refers to that part of Syria which is not included in Palestine (6) This definition, like other uses and definitions of the term "Syria" in the period prior to World War I, reflected the lack of clear-cut distinction between Greater or geographic, and lesser Syria, the later being the loosely defined political administrative unit located in the region between Damascus and Aleppo. In previous centuries, there was a vague notion of a geographical entity called Syria -- today's Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Establishing this entity was not a practical issue, given the historical and political circumstances of those centuries. At the same time, broader loyalties (Islamic and Ottoman) also existed, as did other no less defined entities in parts of Syria – such as Mount Lebanon, Palestine and inland-Syria. With the political and ideological awakening of the last decades of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, two contradictory views of Syria as a defined entity were put forward. According to one view, developed mainly by local Christians and French writers, Greater Syria (la Syrie integrale) was defines has a geographic non-Arab entity that should be set up as a French protectorate. The other view claimed that Syria was an Arab entity and an integral part of the Arab world. An Arab state should be set up therein, to be integrated in the future within a framework that would realize the vision of Arab unity. (7)

(6) British Admiralty, A Handbook of Syria (including Palestine) (London, 1913).p.9. (7) A. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (London,1962), pp.274-276; K.S. Salibi, "Islam ad Syria in the Writings of Henri Lammens," in B. Lewis & P. Holt (eds.) Historians of the Middle East (London 1962), pp 330-342

World War I brought in its wake the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, and created the possibility of setting up a new political entity in the region of Greater Syria. However, the complex reality emerging from the war thwarted this opportunity The secret agreement and promises of the war period gave rise to expectations and commitments to set up at least three political entities in Syrian territory. An Arab state, a Lebanese Christian state or a ------ larger entity under French control and a Jewish National Home in Palestine. In actual fact, British wartime policy provided a great impulse to pan-Arab nationalism and to the movement striving to achieve it. British policy focused the aspirations of the Arab nationalist movement on the region of Syria, by placing Emir Faysal at the head of an embryonic Syrian-Arab state having Damascus as its capital. It was the tension between these expectations that molded the dynamics of the Greater Syria issue in the period between the world wars. This era can be divided into three sub-periods. The Peace Settlement, October 1918 --- July 1921

Clear patterns had not as yet emerged in this period, and the situation remained sufficiently fluid, so as to enable the main parties fighting for control in Syria, or parts of it, to try and steer the situation their way. These parties included France, Britain, Faysal and Arab nationalists in Damascus, the Zionist movement in Palestine, the Christian supporters of an independent Lebanon, the emerging Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, and Abdallah, Faysal's elder brother. One cardinal aspect of this struggle revolved around the attempt to transform Faysal's administration in Damascus into the nucleus of a larger Syrian state with an Arab nationalist orientation. This effort manifested itself in the convening of the Syrian National Congress whose member delegates came also from Palestine, Lebanon, and Transjordan, in the recruitment of supporters in these areas and, finally, Faysal's coronation as King of Syria on March 8, 1920. But, despite brief hopeful spells, the idea came to naught. Faysal's government controlled a limited area and was dependent on Britain which, along with France, generally opposed the idea of a Greater Syria and refused to recognize Faysal as its King. In Lebanon and Palestine there were strong centers of opposition to the idea, and apparently even Faysal himself did not have much faith in the prospect of his rule over these areas. The main supporters of the idea were the radical pan-Arab nationalists in Faysal's camp. (8) Of special interest is the support of the idea of a Greater Syria among the leaders of the emerging nationalist movement of the Palestinian Arabs. This support led Yeoshua Porath to define those years as the "southern Syria period" in the history of Palestinian nationalist movement.(9) His analysis highlights three points: 1. There was no general support among the Arabs in Palestine for the idea that Palestine is southern Syria and part of a larger Syrian state.

(8) The political history of the Faysal period in Syria not yet been sufficiently researched. A preliminary description of the various factions in Faysal's government can be found in Khayriyya al-Qasimiyya. Al-hukuma al-'arabiyya fi Dimashq (Cairo, 1971). (9) Y.Porath The growth of the Palestine Arab Nationalist Movement 1918-1929, (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1971), pp56-90 2. Even at the peak of the Greater Syrian orientation, the Palestinian Arabs' attitude was ambivalent regarding Palestine's inclusion within its framework.

3. The attitude of the Palestinian Arab leaders was instrumental. They supported a Greater Syria entity in the hope and expectation that it would reinforce their opposition to Zionism. Indeed, when Faysal's regime was toppled, this orientation almost completely disappeared from the spectrum of Palestinian political opinion, and a particularistic approach regained the ascendancy. The period concluded with the formation of patterns that were to last throughout future decades. They were based on the division of Syrian territory into four units: a truncated state in inner-Syria (which would in fact only come into being in January 1925), Greater-Lebanon, the Transjordanian Emirate, and Mandatory Palestine.

The Years of Consolidation, 1921 – 1936

These years were marked by a process of consolidation which followed the rapid changes that occurred between 1914 and 1921. But the internal development within each of the four units varied according to its particular conditions. In Lebanon, the Muslims, including the population in the regions detached from Syria in 1920, gradually adapted to the existence of the Lebanese state. The Maronites and Sunnites found a community of interests, resulting in the National pact of 1943 and the establishment of the independent Lebanese Republic. Needless to say, however, the fundamental tensions within the Lebanese body politic were not resolved. The negotiations which took place at the beginning of 1919 between the leaders of the Zionist movement (Weizmann and Frankfurter) and the Arab nationalist leaders demonstrated another aspect of the interplay between the Greater Syria notion and the emerging Jewish-Arab conflict. The Faysal-Weizmann agreement signed in February 1919 unsuccessfully attempted to reach a compromise between Zionism and the Arab nationalist movement. The assumption that guided the Zionist leadership is of great interest in that it presumed that if the Arabs were to achieve their ambitions in the territory surrounding Palestine, it would be easier for them to accept the existence of a Jewish-Zionist entity in Palestine itself. Faysal himself encouraged these hopes when he wrote to Frankfurter on March 3, 1919 that "our movement is nationalistic and not imperialistic and there is room for both of us in Syria." (10) This theme did not fade from Zionist political thought after the failure of the Faysal- Weizmann agreement. In Lebanon the refusal of the Greek Orthodox (and to a lesser extent of other non-Catholic communities) to accept the Lebanese state as it was then defined was translated by Antun Sa'adeh into the doctrine of the Syrian Social nationalist Party. According to this doctrine, Greater Syria was a natural geographic and political entity that had shaped a Syrian nation.

(10) See M. Verte, "Arab-Zionist Negotiations in the Spring of 1919 and British Policy." Zion 1-2(5277/1967);M. Perlman. "Arab-Jewish Diplomacy/ 1918 – 1922"/ Hewish Social Studies 6 no. 2 123-154 C.Z.A. S/25-3282

History decreed that this nation will express and fulfill itself through the formation of an independent Greater Syria state. The party's secular territorial nationalism was inimical both to Arab nationalism and to the smaller entities that had crystallized in the territory of Greater Syria. The history of this intriguing party does not concern us here, (11) but a number of facts and characteristics should be mentioned. First, the party spread from Lebanon to all parts of Syria. Second, as a rule it attracted members of minority groups who were dissatisfied with the prevailing political order. Third, the party is still in existence today, after undergoing several metamorphoses in both form and orientation, and has contributed much to political thought and action in the region. It is particularly interesting to note that some of the Palestinians formulators of the idea of a "secular democratic state" (the Sayigh brothers and Hisham Sharabi, for instance) are former members of this party. Transjordan, created ex nihilo in 1921, was gradually taking shape as a state. Its ruler, Amir and later King Abdallah, was a revisionist and agitating element. In the politics of the region, Abdallah never reconciled himself to the idea that he emerged from World War I and the peace settlement with a mere desert domain. Sir Henry Cox, the British Resident in Amman, observed in 1939 that "it should be accepted as an always present factor, that he will always take any opportunity he may see of bringing more Arabs and more Arab territory under his rule."(12) But Abdallah was a realist, and between 1921 and 1936 he did not venture beyond attempts to acquire supporters and influence in the Syrian state and in Western Palestine. Nor did Abdallah then nurture a vision of the unification of Syria under his rule; he was content with extending his rule either northward to include the Syrian state or part of it, westward to Palestine or its predominantly Arab part. The truncated state set up in inner-Syria inherited the legacy of the Greater Syria which the Arab nationalists had tried to establish during the time of Faysal. When the constituent assembly of mandatory Syria met in 1928, the Drafting Committee determined that the Syrian territories severed from the empire were "a indivisible political unit" and that the splitting up of this territory after World War I was fundamentally invalid. This baggage, however, was too heavy for the political elite of the Syrian state. It is true that the ritual devotion to the vision of an Arab Greater Syria continued to exist, and the refusal to relinquish it was one of the factors that later led to the dispersal of the founding convention by the French Commissioner. But aside from the clear feeling that this dream was indeed hopeless, it was in fact neutralized by two other forces at work:

(11) E. Elath, "Antun Sa'adeh-Portrait of an Arab Revolutionary," Zionism and the Arabs (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv, 1974). Pp. 368-372; also L.Z. Yamak, The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: an Ideological Analysis (Cambridge Mass.,1966)

(12) F.O> 371/23276, a letter from the british Representative in Amman to the High Commisioner in Jerusalem, 7 January 1939

1. The powerful hold of pan-Arab nationalism. Ideological tension existed between this vision and that of a Greater Syria. It is true that the tension could have been mitigated by claiming that the establishment of Greater Syria would be a step on the road to Arab unity. But the idea of Greater Syria had a stigma of hostility to Arab nationalism attached to it. This originated in the French-Christian motion of Syrian statehood mentioned above and was strengthened during the 1930's by the appearance and activity of the Syrian Nationalist Party. 2. The truncated Syrian state acquired a degree of political vitality during the 1920's and early 1930's. The struggle of the nationalist movement against the French over the independence of this territory, and its struggle against the separatist movements in the peripheral regions, fostered new interest and loyalty within its ranks. Towards the middle of the 1930's most of the leaders of the nationalist movement in Syria were prepared to compromise regarding the independence of the Syrian by relinquishing, at least formally and temporarily, not only the idea of a Greater Syria but also their claims to the regions annexed to Lebanon in 1920. This was more of the most important aspects of the treaty signed in 1936 between Syria and France for the purpose of granting Syria independence under French protection. (13)

Heyday of an Idea, 1936-1939

A more fluid situation prevailed during this period, for two main reasons:

1. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon gained nominal independence, with a degree of autonomy that enabled them to conduct a foreign policy and allowed greater intervention by the Arab states in each other's affairs. 2. The general international situation as well as the direct challenge by Germany and Italy weakened the grip of Britain and France over their protectorates. This was the background for the competitive revival of the idea of a Greater Syria by the two Hashemite states. We have already mentioned Abdallah's ambitions to extend his kingdom toward Syria and Palestine during 1921-1936, and his relatively low-key activities in this regard. The change in circumstances in 1936 led him to renew his activity with greater intensity. He set out to establish a monarchy in Syria and simultaneously to impose his rule on the Arabs of Palestine. On this basis he was able to propose to Britain that the consolidation of Syria, and the solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, were two good reasons for lifting British opposition to the plan. The Iraqi interest in this plan was also familiar, although less well-known. From the British archives opened up in recent years we learn that throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Iraqis were interested either in placing a Hashemite Iraqi prince on the throne in Syria, or in bringing about Iraqi-Syrian unity. This policy

(13) In this connection, it is interesting to note President Asad's statements to the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Ray al-'Aam on February 10,1977, in which he explained that Syria gave up her claim to areas annexed to Lebanon, in order to prevent the establishment of a small and ethnic Lebanon.

took on new dimensions in the 1930s, when Iraq, after achieving independence, became the center of the pan-Arab nationalist movement, and when a militant wave of nationalism swept in the middle of that decade. The Iraqi plan, conceived on the eve of World War II, to include Syria in the Arab Federation, was a rival to the Jordanian plan. It sought to exploit the instability in Syria and Palestine and the aspirations for Arab unity, in order to establish Iraqi's hegemony.

Attitudes of the Syrian Nationalists

The leadership of the Syrian state, which gained nominal independence in 1936, was forced to react to external initiatives to set up an Arab federation in Greater Syria. On this issue, the heads of the Syrian nationalist bloc divided into two schools whose roots could be traced to previous years. (14) The dominant orientation was represented by Jamil Mardam, Prime Minister of Syria during most of the period. This approach may be termed pragmatic. It primarily tried to implement the Syrian-French treaty and to ensure the independence and integrity of the territory under its nominal authority. The defensive approach of this leadership with its attachment to the territorial status quo, for fear that any change would endanger it, was described in the report sent from Damascus by Eliyahu Sasson to Moshe Sharett in the Political Department of the Jewish Agency on March 20, 1938 following a conversation with N.B. (=Nasib al-Bakri). Bakri claimed that "Jamil Mardam feared a Turkish conquest of the northern part of Syria. The bloc leaders also decided to associate themselves more with England since they viewed her as a more influential power than France, and expressed the fear that she might reach agreement with Turkey and France over the division of Syria: the northern part of Turkey, the southern part of Transjordan, and Lebanon to France." (15) The second orientation within the nationalist bloc dew its inspiration from the pan-Arab ideology whose supporters were former members of the Istiqlal party headed by Shukri al-Quwatly and other leaders such as Nabih al-'Azmeh and Fakhri al-Barudi. They advocated acceptance of the pan Arab policy even before Syria gained real independence. It was possible to implement such a policy by assisting the Arab revolt in Palestine, that was conducted from Damascus during a certain period. This assistance was given because of pan-Arab policy considerations and not necessarily because of an ambition to

(14) A description and analysis of these approaches is to be found in the memorandum written by Eliyahu Epstein (Elath) (translated into English by A. Eban) at the end of 1939 on the political situation in Syria; C.Z.A. s/25-3500

(15) A letter from Sasson to Sharett on 20 march 1938 (013 6026), the Ben-Gurion heritage Center

achieve control over the Palestinian nationalist movement. Assistance to Arab revolt in Palestine became a subject of contention in the internal policies of Syria during those years because it was, to a great extent, extended by radical elements on the fringes of the nationalist bloc or in the opposition, rather than by the Arab nationalist establishment. (16)

The Pre-War Constellation

On the eve of World War II, support for the pan-Arab orientation gained strength among the ranks of the nationalist bloc. This was partly due to the weakness of Jamil Mardam, to the increasing intervention of other Arab states (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Transjordan), and to the suspicion that France did not intend to grant Syria independence. The Jewish Agency's Political Department was under the impression that the Quwatly group was "pinning its hopes on the appearance of a pan-Arab trend in Britain's Near Eastern policy, believing that by applying pressure to France, Britain would be able to carry out her pan-Arab policies by integrating [inner] Syria into a federation." (17) This analysis can be interpreted as a reflection of the mood prevailing in Syria during the months and weeks before the war, rather that indicating the existence of political resources available to those wishing to set up a Greater Syria. Iraqi and Jordanian policy, as a concrete plan of action, earned very little support among the Arabs of Palestine. There it was supported by a number of nationalist activists such as Akram Zu'aytir, and in Syria by a pro-Hashemite monarchist party under the leadership of Dr. 'Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar. (18) For the most part, however, the Hashemite plans met with a uniform opposition whose leaders -- the Mufti in Palestine and some of the heads of the Syrian nationalist bloc -- viewed them with suspicion and animosity. Other states in the region, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, also responded negatively. France viewed the plans as a British-Hashemite plot to remove her from Syria, and the

(16) For further details on this topic see my article "Germany and the Syrian political Scene in the late 1930's," in Y. Wallach (ed.) Germany and the Middle East 1835-1939 (Tel Aviv, 1975), pp191-198; also the report sent by Gilbert Mackereth, the British consul in Damascus, to Sir Charles Target in Palestine, in which he described in great detail the activities of the participants and the supporters of the Palestinian rebellion in Syria. The report is in the Target Papers in St. Antony's College, Oxford, Box3, File 5.

(17) See above, n. 14.

(18) On Akram Zu'aytir and his activities, se Elath (above, n.11), pp286, 241. Details on the supporters of the plan to set up a Hashemite monarchy in Greater syria (or part of it) can be found in a memorandum written by a British officer, K.N. Donald Mills, in March 1946. The memorandums in the Spears Papers in St, Antony's College, Oxfors, Box 3, File 6.

British treated these plans, at least until World War II, with reservations. A completely new chapter opened with the outbreak of the war. (19)

The Jewish View

These plans posed a preliminary dilemma for the leaders of the Jewish Community. On the one hand, Arab unity could build up strength which would change the balance of power between the Jewish community in Palestine and its Arab environment. On the other hand it might be assumed, just as in 1919, that such unity might satisfy Arab ambitions and that the latter would then ease their pressure with regard to the Palestine question. This second position was formulated by Eliyahu Elath of the Jewish Agency's Political Department when he met the leaders of the Syrian nationalist bloc in Bludan on August 1, 1936: " If the nationalist aspirations of the Arabs would eventually lead to the establishment of a federal [federative in Elath's own language] political regime in our area, we would not object to it in principle, on condition that this federation is based on harmony and understanding among all the parties." (20) The supporters of the idea of a federation, in Syria and elsewhere, resorted to familiar arguments when they tried to explain the latent advantages of their plan to the Zionist leaders. A prime example of this was the plea made in 1940 by one of the leaders of the Syrian nationalist bloc to member of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency with whom he was on good terms. "According to him," reported the Agency emissary, "some of the Syrian leaders consider the federation as a solution to the Palestine problem. As long as that problem exists, and the Arabs of Palestine are battling the Jewish World, the greater is their fear of Jewish domination. If Palestine, Transjordan and Syria were to unite, this unity would safeguard the Arabs from the Jewish domination, and they would therefore be more amenable to making concessions." (21)

(19) This period is outside the scope of this article, but it is desirable to indicate the clear appearance of the central motif mentioned here in the British plan of the solution of Palestine problem, where the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine is connected with the establishment of an Arab federation. This subject is touched upon and analyzed in G. Cohen, The British Cabinet and the Palestine Question (Tel Aviv,1976)

(20) Elath, (above n. 11), pp 422-429.

(21) C.Z.A. S/25-3500, report of 31 March 1940

A vast chasm existed in fact between the Jewish and Arab perspectives. But, since the plans to set up an Arab federation or to establish Greater Syria failed to reach the practical stage in the 1930's, the real contradiction between the Jewish and Arab assumptions did not become fully apparent. Yet it was there. The Zionist leaders endeavored to set up a Jewish state in Palestine. If an Arab federation was to be formed, Zionist diplomacy would attempt to exploit the situation so as to direct Arab nationalist ambitions away from Palestine. The Arab nationalists, however, viewed Palestine as an Arab entity and certainly as part of Greater Syria. Some of the Arab leaders saw no point in arousing Zionist opposition to the plans of Arab unity at an early stage, and some may have believed that it was possible to come to some sort of an arrangement by which the Zionist leaders would achieve some of their objectives. But even if there were Arab leaders who were interested in a settlement between the Arab federation of Greater Syria and the Jewish community in Palestine, they still had to overcome three important obstacles: 1. Potential supporters of a compromise were in a minority, compared to those who refused to concede the Arab nature of Palestine. 2. The question of the Arab federation and the Greater Syria was part of the bitter conflict already unfolding within the emerging system of inter-Arab relations. Conflicts of this sort tend to reinforce radical trends and weaken tendencies toward compromise and agreement. 3. A settlement based on mutual recognition of the Arab federation and the rights of Jewish settlement in Palestine required a great degree of mutual trust, which did not exist.

There is no direct connection between these plans and the idea of Greater Syria which circulated in Damascus between 1974 and 1977. The political leadership in Damascus in the 1930s and 1940s was merely a passive participant in plans that were formulated outside of Syrian borders. Nor is there continuity between the two periods, for the Idea of a Greater Syria remained dormant between the 1940s and the 1970s. The Syrian leaders only decided to revive the idea in the mid-1970s -- either as a plan of action, or as an attempt to drum up ideological legitimacy for an expansionist foreign policy. The waning and rebirth of historical ideas and concepts is a fascinating issue in its own right. It seems that the current geo-political situation, the weakness of several states in the region, and considerations of political benefit, all combined to reawaken connection between the idea of Greater Syria and the Palestine problem, and thus add a new incarnation of a persistent theme in the history of the region during the past century.

Research for this article was partly financed by the Israel Foundation Trustees, to whom I extend my thanks. I am also grateful to Mr. Yoram Nimrod, who shared with me documents that he collected on the subject of the Central Zionist Archives, and the Ben Gurion Heritage Center for permission to quote from some of the documents in their collection.

Translated by Aviva Damboritz.

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