Once upon a time, a Syrian president calling for peace talks would have been met by Israeli leaders rolling out the red carpet.
But Bashar Assad's recent overtures toward Israel, first made in an interview with The New York Times, have failed to excite Israeli decision-makers.
The chief of Israel's military intelligence branch, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash Ze'evi, says Assad is serious and should be put to the test, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon doubts the Syrian leader's sincerity and questions whether giving up the strategic Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria is as much in Israel's interest as it once was.
At the same time, right-wingers in Sharon's Likud Party who fear the prime minister may be sucked into negotiations against his better judgment are doing what they can to prevent talks with the Syrians.
As Israeli leaders weigh the pros and cons of reopening negotiations with Damascus, Ze'evi and other generals make a strong case for taking up Assad on his offer to negotiate.
They say Israel should exploit favorable geopolitical conditions that may not recur to get a good deal from a weak and isolated Damascus: America is in Iraq, Iran is being cautious and there is a lot of international pressure on Syria, especially from the United States.
Together, the factors add up to a window of opportunity that shouldn't be missed, the generals say.
If Assad is not serious about peace, they say, negotiations will soon expose his insincerity -- so Israel has nothing to lose.
The generals also argue that if the Palestinians aren't ready for peace moves and Sharon instead opts for "unilateral disengagement," negotiations with Syria could soften the expected international criticism.
But Sharon and most of his Cabinet have doubts about the wisdom of renewing a peace process with Syria. The prime minister doesn't think Assad is serious about peace, and even if he were, the price -- the return of the Golan -- is too high.
In recent Cabinet meetings, Sharon has made plain his reservations. When Ze'evi reported that Assad was serious, Sharon asked him caustically whether the Syrian president is still backing the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Palestinian terrorists in Damascus. Ze'evi acknowledged that Assad was.
Sharon also told his ministers that he rejected Assad's contention that "80 percent" of the disputed issues already had been already resolved in prior rounds of negotiations between Israel and Assad's late father, Hafez Assad. Those talks foundered on Syria's demand that it be allowed to retain land at the foothills of the Golan, which it conquered in Israel's 1948 War of Independence but which Israel took back in the June 1967 Six-Day War.
If talks with Syria are renewed, Sharon said, they must begin from scratch.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was even more blunt. He argued that since his secret negotiations in the late 1990s with Hafez Assad, the "world had changed," and Netanyahu's offer to cede the Golan in return for peace -- an offer later repeated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- was no longer valid.
Netanyahu spelled out why: After the American war in Iraq, he said, Syria had become an insignificant and isolated backwater, on the verge of expulsion from the international community. Thus, Netanyahu said, there's no reason to make a deal that entails major Israeli concessions.
The argument was similar to that of the generals -- but the conclusion was reversed.
There are other reasons for the government's lack of enthusiasm. Government officials claim that it would be difficult domestically for Israel to negotiate concessions simultaneously on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. Advocates of a Syrian move counter that the Palestinian process is not currently going anywhere.
More importantly, Syria today has considerably less to offer than it did in the talks with Barak four years ago at Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
At the time, the thinking was that peace with Syria would bring peace with the entire Arab world. That made sense because Israel and the Palestinians were going through a quiet phase and looking ahead to final status negotiations of their own. The general mood was one of imminent accommodation.
Now that Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a violent struggle, however, there is no way Syria could presume to deliver the Arab world.
Moreover, peace with Syria in 2000 would have nullified the dreaded "eastern front" and the prospect of a major land war against both Syria and Iraq. Now that Iraq has been taken out of the equation, Syria is in no position to launch such an attack on its own.
That means that Sharon has less incentive to give up strategic assets for a peace agreement.
Such dilemmas, though, are still a way off, since Sharon suspects Assad's statements are aimed primarily at improving his image in Washington -- and Sharon doesn't want to be duped into helping him.
Assad, the theory goes, has been shaken by the proximity of U.S. forces in Iraq and by the Syria Accountability Act that President Bush recently signed into law, which provides for more sanctions against Damascus if it continues to support terrorism.
Assad's peace talk is meant simply to get Washington to ease up, Sharon believes.
That reading is, to a large extent, shared by the United States. In late December, U.S. State Department official David Satterfield told a senior official in Israel's U.S. embassy that Washington believed Assad simply is trying to influence U.S. and international opinion. Satterfield said that if Assad were serious, he would have taken steps like clamping down on terrorist groups based in Damascus.
Still, Israel continues to explore the issue, and it has asked U.S. and European diplomats visiting Damascus to relay their impressions. A Likud legislator, Majallie Whbee, also is due to meet Assad soon.
Whbee, a Druse who has played the go-between with other Arab governments before, is close to Sharon, but Sharon denies that Whbee is an official emissary.
Nevertheless, Likud right-wingers are worried. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz's much publicized announcement of new projects and settlements on the Golan clearly was designed to nip in the bud any chance of talks with Syria.
Sharon insists that Katz's announcement was not coordinated with the government and was inaccurate, and he says it gravely harmed Israel's image abroad.
Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, insists that no new settlements will be built on the heights, which Israel annexed more than two decades ago, and that the budgets Katz mentioned are intended to develop tourism on the Golan, not to stifle possible negotiations.
So where do things stand? Sharon says he wants tangible indications from Assad that he really wants to make peace, such as a crackdown on Damascus-based terrorist groups and an end the arms flow from Iran through Damascus to Hezbollah.
If Assad meets those conditions, Sharon will be on the spot -- forced to make a major strategic decision, one way or another.
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