The lead editorial in Ha'aretz today calls on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to reject the latest offer by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem to renew peace talks. I have gone back and forth on this issue in my mind, but I am growing more skeptical even as the calls by Americans and Israelis to pursue such negotiations are increasing. It is possible that I am mistaken in my objections, but my opposition is not dogmatic.
Proponents of negotiations with Syria often refer to the talks between the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z"l and the deceased Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. The two were apparently very close to reaching an agreement that would have seen Israel return the Golan heights to the Syrians in return for a comprehensive peace agreement.
Ha'aretz's editorial today draws on a different lesson from the history of the Arab-Israeli conflicts. It argues that Golda Meir spurned Egyptian proposals for peace talks in 1973, in part because she "relied on the American administration, which accepted the stalled diplomatic situation in the Middle East out of Cold War-related considerations." The result was the disastrous 1973 war. The lesson for today is that
Olmert should not follow in Golda's footsteps, which caused a national catastrophe. He must seriously consider Assad's proposals, and maximize coordination with the Americans. This is the view of the Labor Party, and even Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu is suggesting talks with Assad, during which Israel will present him with its demands that Syria relinquish terrorism, distance itself from Iran and cease providing arms to Hezbollah.The analogy between American concerns of 2006 and Cold War concerns in 1973 seems legitimate to me. Maybe Israel must indeed strike out on its own in this case. But I think this would be a mistake for two major reasons.
One, I continue to be skeptical about the sincerity of Assad's overtures. To me, they seem primarily designed to appease international sentiment in the short term, and to confuse the domestic political scenes in the U.S. and in Israel. In America, Assad has managed to lure a number of naive American senators into visiting him again (this is after everyone from French President Jacques Chirac to German Foreign Minister was unable to make any headway at all with Assad on Lebanon). Assad smelled opportunity in the wake of the Iraq Study Group report and comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the importance of negotiations. But he has not made a single concession on anything.
Two, the historical analogy is flawed because too many variables have changed in the meantime - the most significant ones being the rise of Iran in the region and the impact of the summer war between Israel and Hizbullah. In return for peace, Israel expects Syria to stop its alliance with Iran and to end its support for Hizbullah. But in the wake of Hizbullah's perceived "victory" and the success of the Shi'a in Iraq, the Iranians (as I argued yesterday) look like the rising power in the region. Assad has made his deal with Iran because he thinks that the Islamic Republic will be able to deliver the goods he wants - control over Lebanon. Furthermore, the summer war showed that a proxy such as Hizbullah can wage a war against Israel without its patron having to suffer real consequences.
The last decade shows that debilitating terrorist attacks can be waged for years by various militant factions without any governmental authority assuming authority over them (that has been the situation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at least since Oslo). In the current international climate, there is no way to guarantee Israel's most important interest - the cessation of Syrian-sponsored terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups or Hizbullah. Syria could, as Arafat did for years, plausibly deny involvement or simply let the Iranians do most of the work. Even when faced with seemingly incontrovertible evidence, most of the international community did not agree with Israeli and American assessments that Arafat was behind the ongoing suicide bombing and shooting attacks. The decisions by President Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to treat Arafat as "irrelevant," was met with condescension and condemnation in Europe and elsewhere.
I am afraid that Olmert is right in his skepticism about Syria's motives.