Prior to planning once more the course of the railway between Haifa and Damascus, and before Israeli developers start searching for land on which to build shopping malls in Aleppo - one should feel free to be a little insulted. Why did Israelis need to hear about their prime minister's intentions to relinquish the Golan Heights from the Syrian media, Syrian cabinet ministers and the Syrian President? Why didn't Ehud Olmert screw up his courage during one of the thousands of interviews he gave for the holiday and inform Israelis that he had told Egypt's President Bashar Assad that he intended to withdraw from the Golan? Did he think he could write a little note - "O.K., take the heights" - and transmit it through the Turkish mediator to Assad and that everything would remain secret?
Negotiations do not have to be public. The security arrangements, the location of the early warning stations, the size of the demilitarized zone, the arrangements for dividing up the water, civil and military cooperation and all the rest do not require public discussion at the preparatory level. But the strategic decision whose implication is the evacuation of thousands of Israeli citizens and the lifting of the threat of war on the part of Syria: These are not the personal affairs of the prime minister or the various mediators. The implementation of such historic change depends first of all on preparing public opinion in Israel, on overcoming an aggressive opposition, of convincing people that the withdrawal is necessary, and with clearly demonstrating how Israel will benefit from this. How was Olmert planning to present the "painful concessions to the public? In a whisper? Through hypnosis?
"Olmert's silence" was so successful that the Syrian-Turkish disclosures on Israel's position raised only questions concerning Syria: Why now? What does Assad gain from this? Is Assad serious? Can he deliver? As if Israel is the one that for years has stood on the border in the Golan Heights, waving peace offers while the Syrians have kept silent. Assad's speeches and interviews to the international media about his desire for peace talks with Israel were forgotten. The framework he presented in July 2007, listing the demands and the stages of the negotiations needed to achieve the results his father, Hafez Assad, wanted - forgotten. Assad's position can be summed up in the statement, "I know what is necessary for peace."
It is not Assad who needs to be questioned about the "timing" and the "method." It's Olmert, who suddenly began acting like a petty official who is not authorized to give details on the negotiations. This is not the strong stance of a leader who needs to convince the public. What happened to all the boasting at the start of the Second Lebanon War, when Olmert sought to persuade us that it was justified, necessary and wise to go to war? Does the peace process with Syria not deserve the same kind of pathos? Something like: "Citizens of Israel, we are moving toward a historic step that, if successful, will alter Israel's strategic standing in the Middle East and remove yet another threat to its welfare"?
But Olmert the bureaucrat is restive in his chair, fidgeting and muttering, to the point when he is unable to utter either denial or confirmation. "There is still a long way to go," his cronies explain, and leave it to the pundits to explain that Assad is this or that, and that first he must cut his ties with Iran and force Hamas from Damascus, and contain Hezbollah... Are these the conditions in Olmert's note to the Turkish mediator? Are these the "formal" requirements? Not according to Assad. According to Assad, Syria has received a "deposit" from Olmert, similar to the one offered by Yitzhak Rabin, who promised a full withdrawal. Are the only outstanding issues those pertaining to security and water arrangements, as Assad's spokesmen say? And will it be Assad, not Olmert, from whom we will continue to hear important details on the future of the state of Israel?
Syria is known as a country of rumors. The media there are restricted by oppressive censorship, until the point when the regime wants to talk. In this respect, Israel is worse than Syria. There are rumors but the government says nothing. There are sounds, but they emanate from Damascus. There is information, but it comes from Ankara. We can only conclude that there will be peace with Syria, but it will be so secret that even the prime minister will not know about it.
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