Avraham Hamra met both Hafez Assad and his son, Bashar. As chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Syria until 1994, he had four audiences with the late president between 1972 and 1992. He was received by the heir when he led a delegation of Syrian Jewish leaders paying a condolence call after Assad's elder son, Basil, died in a car crash six years ago.
The rabbi made aliyah in 1994, two years after persuading Assad to lift travel restrictions on the 500 Jews then remaining in Syria. He has lived since then with his family in the Tel-Aviv satellite town of Holon.Interviewed on the day of Hafez Assad's funeral, Rabbi Hamra told me: "Only God knows what the future holds for Syria and the Jews. But once the new leader has established himself in office, he may prove more flexible in negotiating with Israel. Bashar was only 28 when we met him and had not yet entered political life, but he struck me as open and moderate, a quiet but stable young man who had been educated in the West."
Jewish leaders spent 90 minutes with Hafez Assad during their last encounter in 1992. The president received them with respect, Hamra said. At the end of their discussion, he opened the gates for Syrian Jews to emigrate and pardoned two Jewish brothers, of the Swed family, who had served four and a half years of a six-year sentence for illegally visiting Israel, which at that time was tantamount to spying.At the request of President Jimmy Carter, Assad had already allowed more than 300 Jewish girls to leave Syria between 1977 and 1992 to find husbands in their community living in the United States."We had our ups and downs with him," Hamra reflected. "I wouldn't say we exactly miss him, but there was a gradual improvement. We didn't go backwards. So long as Bashar follows in his father's way, the chances look promising."
Only 75 Jews still live in Syria, all but five in Damascus. They enjoyed equal civil and religious rights, the rabbi reported. They all had exit permits, he added, but had chosen not to use them. They wanted to stay, either for business reasons or because they felt at home.
Israelis in general share the rabbi's mixed feelings about Assad and his uncertainty about the future. The 69-year-old dictator's death last weekend left more questions than answers. Bashar's first priority, it is recognized, will be to consolidate his rule. Even the most optimistic Israelis assume that the peace process will be put on hold for months - and even then, the new president will be careful not to expose himself to criticism for abandoning his father's legacy.
As Eyal Zisser, a Tel-Aviv University expert on Syrian affairs, put it: "In the long term, things will be different. Bashar won't differ over his father's territorial demands, but he will be more open. At least he will smile at Israel. Bashar will be the next president of Syria, but for how long he will survive is another story.
"I expect everybody to be very careful in Lebanon. They will want to see what kind of leader he will be. If he is strong, stability will continue. If he is not, it could prove very dangerous. No one, in Israel or Syria, is interested in an explosion on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Hezbollah, too, will be very cautious."
Official Israel's response to news of Assad's death was calculatedly low-keyed. Prime Minister Barak expressed his sympathy for the bereaved family. The army went on the alert, but without demonstratively moving tanks to the Golan Heights. Arab Knesset members were permitted to attend the funeral. Local media reported that Israeli intelligence learned of Assad's demise hours before it was announced, but said nothing publicly in order to give Bashar time to prepare a peaceful transition.
Still, no one here shed any tears. In war and in peacemaking, Assad was an implacable enemy. What he seemed to want was peace with Uncle Sam, rather than peace with Israel. His only positive gesture was to keep the Golan border quiet for one quarter of a century after the separation of forces agreement brokered by Henry Kissinger following the Yom Kippur War.
"We are not too sorry over Assad's death," Yitzhak Rabin's former bureau chief Eitan Haber wrote in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot. "We are even a bit happy. Hafez Assad was a shadowy tyrant, primitive and zealous, who left behind him a dark country, primitive and zealous, whose residents are hungry for bread. From the Israeli point of view, he was a bitter enemy, cruel and merciless, who caused the deaths of hundreds of Israelis."
Barry Rubin, the Jerusalem Post's Middle East columnist, nailed what he branded the myth of Assad the Statesman. "Assad," he wrote, "could not adjust to the times, did not build a good relationship with the U.S., failed to make peace with Israel, and forfeited much of his historic link with Moscow. In short, Assad was a great statesman only if endlessly saying no can be called a strategy."