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Lessons from the hostage-taking

IN the wake of the recent terrorist hijacking, disquieting sentiments have surfaced that portray Syria as a moderate peacemaker to which the United States should draw closer, and call upon the US to adopt a more ``balanced'' and ``evenhanded'' policy in the Middle East -- code words for abandoning Israel. Underlying such views are illusions about Middle East politics which are capable of inflicting enormous damage on American interests.

The deeper implications of this violence were illuminated in an interview with a Saudi diplomat, Hussein Farrash, in the Jiddah-based Saudi Gazette.

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Mr. Farrash, a counselor at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut, was kidnapped in January of 1984 by the ``Islamic Jihad,'' the same gang of thugs that hijacked and brutalized the American hostages. He was released 17 months later. He revealed that he had spent nearly 500 days manacled and blindfolded, and was subjected to brutal beatings, mock executions, and psychological torture.

Arab against Arab, Muslim against Muslim: This internecine barbarism exposes the violence that is deeply ingrained in the very texture of the Middle East, anciently rooted in a fanatical intolerance of beliefs and values that vary from the dominant line.

For its believers who are extremist and fanatic, Islam is the only true faith -- complete, final, eternal, immutable: the ultimate divine revelation. It is God's will that Islam rule the entire world and it is the duty of believers to convert, subjugate, or destroy the infidel. In the Holy War (jihad) mandated in that cause, the martyr gains Paradise. In this psychology, any divergence from orthodoxy is heresy and the adversary becomes the enemy.

Out of just such a doctrinal dispute arose the deadly schism between Sunnis and Shiites, and surely there is no more graphic example than the war between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iran. To that conflict must be added other mutual massacres, of Palestinian terrorist factions, of Shiites and Palestinians, Druze and Shiites, Muslims and Lebanese Christians.

The other face of such violence is the war against the ``alien.'' Again, the Iranian brand of Shiism has provided the model in the seizure of the American Embassy and the hysterical depiction of America as ``the Great Satan'' -- a model adhered to by the Muslim fanatics who assassinated Egypt's President Sadat, as well as by the ``Islamic Jihad'' and Hizbullah, who have murdered not only Americans but also French, British, Spanish, and Germans -- all representative of the infidel West.

What is Syria's role in this Byzantine drama? Syrian dictator Hafez Assad is driven by a grandiose ambition: to make his regime paramount from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf -- culminating in the domination of Lebanon, subjugation of Jordan, subversion of Iraq, intimidation of the Gulf states, preeminence over arch-rival Egypt, and ultimate liquidation of Israel.

Assad is a master of all the dark undercurrents of the regional hysteria. He manipulates and subordinates it to his own ends, now exploiting, now restraining terrorism. Virtually all the terrorist gangs find a haven in Syria or in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. Syria joins Iran and Libya in sponsoring, arming, training, funding, indoctrinating them. Syria provides several operational bases for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which was sent from Tehran to help the Lebanese Shiite terrorists. Assad also permits Iranian shipments of arms across Syria to the Shiite militias in Lebanon.

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Assad's control is manifest in the speed and ease with which he obtained the release of the hostages. He seized the chance provided by the hijacking to seek American sympathy and weaken American support for Israel.

Certain circles have urged the US to reconsider its ties to Israel -- its most natural ally in the region -- and to move closer to America's adversaries, Syria and its terrorist clients. The dangerous fallacy is that the US, under such amoral blandishments, would ultimately end up abandoning any and all of its threatened allies.

True, the fanatics in the Arab and Muslim world hate Israel to the death because they see it as the ``infidel alien'' that dares to claim equality in an Islamic world that brooks no equal. The profound truth overlooked by this logic, however, is that, for the terrorists and their mentors in Damascus, Tehran, and Tripoli, the prime enemy is the West and its civilization.

America is ``the Great Satan'' because it is the preeminent leader of the West, and Israel is condemned precisely because it represents Western democratic values in the Middle East: We are all in this together, inescapably, because we are dedicated to liberty. This is what the American people have always understood, and it is why Israel has always had overwhelming US support. Appeasement of terrorism won't work, not only because it is unrealistic and there can never be an end to it -- but, more fundamentally, because it is amoral and unworthy of democracies.

Michael Shiloh is the consul general of Israel in Boston.

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