Tensions are once again rising along the northern border, and talk of war is again being heard. Israel has warned Syria against transferring "upgraded" weaponry to Hezbollah and threatened to topple the Syrian regime if war breaks out. Syria has threatened to attack Israeli cities, and Iran has charged that Israel is planning to attack Syria and Lebanon.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in Damascus recently with the leaders of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas and prophesied a "Middle East without Zionists."
The American administration has been trying to calm the situation. It has sent repeated messages to Israel warning of the possibility of problems caused by a "miscalculation." The Americans also summoned the Syrian ambassador and demanded that Syria stop sending arms to Hezbollah.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with senior American officials in Washington about the growing danger in the north, and shortly thereafter, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi headed for Washington as well. Next week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit Israel, and he, too, is expected to urge Israel to show restraint and refrain from military action.
Israel rightly fears being surrounded by long-range rockets with sophisticated warheads that can hit major cities in the center of the country as well as air force bases. Such rockets are currently deployed in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. But before it embarks on a military operation in the north, or even escalates the conflict, it must first exhaust any diplomatic alternatives.
Instead of threatening war, Israel must strive to resume diplomatic negotiations with Syria, with the aim of signing a peace agreement with it. Nothing would do as much as a diplomatic agreement to effect a strategic change in Israel's north and dismantle the hostile coalition led by Iran.
An Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, in exchange for appropriate security arrangements and normalization with Syria, would create a new reality in the Middle East, extend Israel's peaceful borders, increase stability in Lebanon and give Syria an alternative to its alliance with Ahmadinejad.
Barak is right to support renewed negotiations with Syria, but he must not make do with adopting the stance of a pundit or analyst. Instead, he must push to restart the negotiations. And if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persists in refusing to talk with Syria because he objects to "preconditions," or if he clings to his view that Israel must not leave the Golan Heights - then don't be surprised if the warnings of war from Damascus come true.
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