Patrick Seale in Israel

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on April 14.

Patrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.'” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

But when I first met Seale, it wasn’t in connection with his Syria work. The date was February 5, 1992, and the place, the Chicago studio of Milt Rosenberg’s highly regarded talk show, “Extension 720.” I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and Seale was passing through town to promote a new book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. It was a wretched piece of conspiracy mongering (the Economist called it “ludicrous”), claiming that the Mossad was behind the Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Seale didn’t bring a single shred of evidence. I read and annotated the book, and came to the studio loaded for bear. In the waiting room, where we met, Seale seemed almost apologetic: “I’ve written something of a potboiler.” In the on-air exchange, I quoted his claims line by line, pressing him to produce even a scintilla of evidence, of which there was none. At one point, I told Seale that I respected his Struggle for Syria, but each of his subsequent efforts was less rigorous than its predecessor, and with Abu Nidal he’d scraped bottom. Maybe one day I’ll put the exchange online (I have the tape). I remember thinking it was a nice evening’s work; it certainly wasn’t the beginning of a friendship.

I didn’t expect to encounter Seale again, but later events in the 1990s set in motion Israel-Syria feelers and intermittent peace talks, and when the Labor party prevailed in the May 1999 elections, prime minister-elect Ehud Barak indicated that he wanted to relaunch negotiations. It was Barak who asked my colleague Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s preeminent Syria hand, to invite Seale to Israel to speak publicly. (Seale knew and respected Rabinovich, although the tie had been severed for a few years, after Rabinovich disparaged Seale’s Asad biography in a review.) I headed the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University at that time, and that’s how I came to co-sponsor and co-chair Patrick Seale’s first and only public address in Israel. The date: June 9, 1999.

Hebrew translations of The Struggle for Syria and Asad

I’ll not forget the Seale-fest that ensued in the lead-up and sequel to his appearance. Everyone wanted to know Asad’s real redlines, and everyone assumed Seale was on a quasi-official mission to relay a message from Damascus. The media besieged us with requests to interview him. When he came to the university to speak, more than five hundred people packed the hall. He had audiences with Barak (a “red-carpet reception,” said one source), President Ezer Weizman (who gave Seale a Golan-must-go interview), and former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Uri Saguy, a former head of military intelligence and Barak’s expected point man on Syria, took Seale to the Golan, where Saguy told Israeli settlers, with tears in his eyes, that “hard decisions may be coming.”

Rabinovich was the go-to for these meetings, but I also found myself consumed with the management of Patrick Seale, media star, for the better part of a week. He was charming, diplomatic, and precise in his formulations, and he clearly enjoyed the limelight. Seale genuinely yearned to facilitate a breakthrough—on Asad’s terms, of course. Later that month, Seale published side-by-side interviews with Barak and Asad, in which they signaled hope for this and that. Seale denied being a go-between, but that’s exactly how Israelis regarded him.

It turned out to be a bridge too far, for reasons that will keep historians busy for years to come. When Asad died a year later and his son Bashar took over, Israelis concluded that Seale didn’t have the same access in Damascus that he’d had under the old man. Failure at Camp David, Intifada II, Barak’s departure, Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Iraq war all pushed Syrian-Israel peace off the agenda, and put Syria on the defensive. Seale slipped into Israel-bashing on a scale unprecedented even for him. Read the columns yourself.

And that’s where my Seale story ends, but there’s a footnote. Whenever Seale came up in Israeli discussions, there usually would be a fair bit of winking and nodding about his ancestry. His father, a Russian Jew born (I think) in Jerusalem under the name of Ephraim Sigel, converted to Christianity, changed his name to Morris Seale, studied theology in Belfast (where Patrick was born), and became an ordained minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Sigel-Seale then went out as a missionary to Damascus, where Patrick spent his childhood. Nothing more excites speculation among Israelis than the discovery that a foreign friend or foe is a blood member of the tribe. (Albright, Kerry… it happens all the time.) Did Hafez Asad and his cronies know that their Patrick wasn’t purely Irish? Did it matter? How could it not? Etcetera—for what it’s worth. (Not much, I think.)

Seale has left a world in which even the idea of Syria is in peril, as nearly every achievement of Hafez Asad unravels. In the preface to a 1986 reedition of The Struggle for Syria, Seale wrote that Hafez Asad

seeks to discipline Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, preventing them from entering into any relationship with Israel without his consent, trying to turn the Arab Levant into a bastion against Israeli expansion… But just as Asad needs to unite the Levant in order to recover the occupied territories, Israel needs to divide it in order to keep them… “Greater Syria” is a sort of mirror-image of “Greater Israel” and its inevitable opponent. Both cannot win.

It might not be as black-and-white as all that, but if Seale was right, there can be no doubt today who the winner is. Syria is prostrate, an arena for the meddling of others, while the Arab Levant continues to divide and subdivide into its smallest parts. As the old man told Seale back in 1988, “the struggle continues,” but it’s not the one he or Seale envisioned. Theirs will be a sad reunion.