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Jewish Journal

Israeli talks with Syrians make sense

By MJ Rosenberg

May 29, 2008 | 2:30 pm

Dore Gold, a former official in several Likud governments, is appalled at reports that the Israeli government has entered into serious negotiations with Syria.

"In a period in which Iran is on the march and extending its influence from Lebanon to Iraq, for Israel to consider giving up the Golan Heights would be a strategic blunder of the highest order," he said.

Not surprisingly, Gold has it backward. I say "not surprisingly," because Gold was one of the more vocal proponents of the idea that a U.S. invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein would make Israel safer. Instead, the invasion gravely damaged Israel's security by essentially handing Iraq to Iran on a silver platter.

There is then real irony in Gold expressing concern about Iranian influence in Iraq, when it comes from the camp that is responsible for it. But that does not mean that Gold is wrong about the dangerous situation that is evolving to Israel's north. It is just that his conclusion is wrong.

Israel needs to pursue an agreement precisely because the situation is so bad and will, if left alone, get worse. And not just a little worse.

This month's agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah clearly puts the Shiite organization on top. Hezbollah rules. The only reason it has not taken formal control of Lebanon is that it chooses not to.

But Hezbollah doesn't have to formally take control to pose a terrible threat to Israel. It can, and will, move against Israel when it decides to, and no one in Lebanon has the power to stop it.

That could mean resumption of the 2006 war but this time with thousands of long-range missiles that can reach all the way to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Unlike the Iranian nuclear threat -- which remains theoretical at this point -- conventional missile attacks on Israeli cities could happen tomorrow. Deterring them is Israel's highest strategic priority, especially as summer approaches, which is often war season in the Middle East.

And that is why talking to the Syrians makes sense. The Lebanese government cannot stop Hezbollah from launching those missiles. Only their patrons in Damascus and Tehran can do that.

There are those -- and they have been quite vocal lately -- who say that engaging in negotiations is a gift to the other side and that negotiating is a form of surrender. What hogwash!

In 1971, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt told the Israelis that if Israel would pull back two miles from the Suez Canal, Egypt would open negotiations on a full peace treaty. President Richard Nixon told Prime Minister Golda Meir to explore the offer and that if she didn't, Egypt would probably go to war. Meir said "no," Israel was strong and didn't fear Egypt. So Sadat prepared for war.

Two years later, Egypt attacked. Israel lost 3,000 soldiers and almost the state itself. Only then did it agree to negotiations that ultimately led to the Camp David agreement, which has saved countless Israeli and Egyptian lives over three decades. It also led Israel to a situation where it relinquished not a few miles of Sinai but every last inch.

In other words, it is not diplomacy that rewards aggressors and would-be aggressors. It is the absence of diplomacy or inept diplomacy.

Not everybody understands that. Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post that one must never negotiate with rogue states or organizations without preconditions.

You know, like the preconditions Congress likes to apply to negotiations with the Palestinians. These have included banning anti-Israel remarks in mosques, rewriting their already rewritten textbooks, converting to Judaism, but only by a certified Orthodox rabbi. OK, that last one was a joke. Krauthammer favors setting preconditions that will deter negotiations in contrast to achieving goals in the context of negotiations.

In the same column, Krauthammer says that it was OK to deal with Stalin, the worst butcher in world history, because he was our "ally." Some ally! And that is just the point. FDR dealt with the Soviet thug because it was necessary to our security. That should be the only criterion.

Frankly, I have never been comfortable with the idea that the United States negotiated with, and has now opened relations with, the Qadaffi regime in Libya. It is not only one of the most repressive governments on earth; it also shot down a Pan Am plane 20 years ago killing 200 American kids on their way home from semester abroad programs in Europe.

But the Bush administration negotiated a deal with Libya anyway. Similarly, despite the rhetoric, Israel is indirectly negotiating with Hamas and has been for months.

The United States negotiated with Libya not as a gift to a murderous junta but because the Bush administration believed that getting Libya to end its nuclear weapons program was a vital American interest. The same with Israel and Hamas. Israel is negotiating with Hamas because there are things Hamas can provide that Israel wants -- like an end to the shelling of Sderot and freedom for Gilad Shalit.

Ehud Olmert understands that. He is negotiating with the Syrians to achieve a verifiable agreement that will compel Syria to get out of Lebanon, end its support for Hezbollah and its role as Iranian proxy on Israel's border. The strategic value of the Golan would be replaced by early-warning systems, demilitarized zones and international monitors.

Will he succeed in reaching an agreement? I am not optimistic. The Syrians seem to want the Golan but not at the price of full recognition of Israel. There is little indication that they have any intention of repeating the kind of gesture Sadat made when he came to Jerusalem, although President Bashar Assad has said that he accepts the concept of full normalization, as expressed in the Arab initiative of 2002.

But a dramatic gesture of some kind is essential to convince Israelis that Syria is serious. The Israeli public is not eager to leave the Golan. Israelis might be ready to relinquish the Heights in exchange for full peace and normalization, but it certainly won't in exchange for a peace treaty that is little more than a formal end of belligerency.Nonetheless, I hope the two sides keep talking. One never knows what kind of breakthrough can occur when the parties to a conflict are negotiating, even indirectly. But everyone knows no breakthroughs will come if leaders refuse to negotiate.

Olmert deserves U.S. support for negotiating with Assad. Similarly, the United States needs to negotiate with Iran on all the issues that divide us, starting with its nuclear program, its backing of terrorists in Iraq and its alliance with Hezbollah. What has the United States accomplished by stonewalling?

You talk not because it benefits the other side but because it benefits you. You refuse to talk when your preference is confrontation, not resolution. It is that simple.



MJ Rosenberg is the director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.



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