From 2004 to 2006, I was partner to secret and informal contacts with representatives of the Syrian regime, with the aim of examining the possibility of reaching a peace agreement. During the talks, which were held alternately under Turkish and Swiss sponsorship, a not-surprising argument developed. The Israeli participants requested a Syrian gesture that would show them that there had been a change of heart, but Syrian President Bashar Assad replied (via his emissaries ): "I'll smile at you after I get back the Golan." Later on, the talks became more formal but later collapsed, as will be remembered, in January 2009, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
So, it is possible to inform you officially now, Mr. Assad, that you will not get the Golan even if you suddenly begin to smile at us all the time. After the monstrous teeth you have bared in the past year, you can forget about us - both the left and the right. If at any time we choose to speak with Syria about the future of the Golan Heights (and I believe this will happen ), it will not be with you, nor with any regime that resembles the one you are still heading at this time.
It is no simple matter for me - as someone who exactly five years ago set up the Israel-Syria Peace Society, and still heads it - to write these words. But I am convinced Assad has lost his legitimacy as a ruler and therefore also the right to demand the Golan back at any time. This will be the case even if he succeeds in remaining in power.
Looking at this issue from a broader perspective, it is difficult today for Israel to make any kind of substantive move during the Syrian crisis, and that is a shame. In recent years, our government decided to make do with strengthening its ties with the Western world, and especially with Eastern Europe, and it has neglected attempts to strengthen our legitimacy in the Middle East. The severe decline in relations with Turkey is a salient example of the damage that has been caused.
And so it is that when a mere few dozen kilometers from our border, a horrific civil war is taking place, we have become so paralyzed that if we intervene on behalf of one side or another, we shall wreak political havoc upon it and undermine its image.
It is precisely we, who are so close geographically, so strong militarily and so shocked at the killing taking place at the very threshold of our home, who are prevented from acting. Those who could take action - the Western world, and particularly the Americans - are geographically removed; they are tired of the wars of the past decade, and are busy with economic tribulations (Europe ) or frozen by domestic politics (the United States ).
Other than expressing deep sorrow over the thousands of dead in the war in Syria, and accusing Assad of the killings, we are left now only with the possibility of acting on the humanitarian level. It is incumbent upon the Israeli government, assisted by civil society, to get prepared, and without delay, for the possibility of absorbing Syrian citizens in the Golan Heights, and providing medical or humanitarian assistance to any Syrian citizen who needs it.
In this scenario, we cannot lose. If the outstretched hand comes in contact with a cold shoulder on the part of the Syrian population, we have at least demonstrated our good will. And if, surprisingly, Syrian citizens do agree to come to the Golan in order to find refuge, perhaps we will be able to change the tenor of our relationship with the Syrian people over the generations.
The writer served as director general of the Foreign Ministry, and teaches at Tel Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now