Syrian President Bashar Assad is proposing that Israel resume the peace talks that were conducted under Turkish mediation and stalled last year. During Assad's meeting in Paris on Friday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visited the French capital, Assad called for the negotiating teams to get back to work. Assad's message regarding his desire for peace with Israel is consistent, and the Syrian president has repeated it in recent months in meetings with diplomats and Western visitors.
A peace agreement with Syria would give Israel important strategic advantages. The danger of war would be reduced if the tense state of alert on both sides of the "basalt curtain" that is the Golan Heights is replaced by stable security arrangements with Western backing. Israel would then have another recognized border with a neighboring country. The alliance Iran is leading against Israel would weaken while Syria would join the pro-Western camp. Hezbollah would be reined in and Lebanon would be able follow the Syrians on the road to peace. Anyone who wants Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's missiles to rust in their depots must reach an agreement with Assad.
The Israeli military establishment supports a renewal of the Syrian track. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said last month that "we should not be disheartened by Assad," as Haaretz's Barak Ravid has reported. Israel also has a strategic interest in cutting Syria off from the radical axis led by Iran. Ashkenazi believes that Assad could join the region's moderate camp. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, says the peace signals coming from Syria should not be belittled. The positions of Ashkenazi and Barak show that they appreciate the strategic advantages inherent in an agreement with Syria.
The recipe for an agreement is known based on the talks that six Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu and Barak, have conducted with Syria over the past 18 years. It involves an Israeli withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights in exchange for security arrangements and a normalization of relations. Also needed is a creative solution for the dispute over the final border. The ability of Assad and his regime to carry out any agreement is not in question.
Netanyahu must respond to the renewed opportunity that Assad is presenting to him. Instead of saying he his ready for negotiations "without preconditions" but without committing to anything, he must move all the way to a peace agreement that will improve Israel's strategic situation. He has a partner in Damascus.
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