It's hard not to marvel at Defense Minister Ehud Barak's rhetorical skills, how he constantly invents a new way - an original expression - to not say anything. Last week he described Syria as a "central brick in any stable peace agreement." But there will be no peace with Syria because Israel, according to Barak, "has sought in the past and will continue to seek in the future ways to advance peace with Syria."
Still, Syria will certainly earn a few more terms of endearment, maybe even move up from "central brick" to "cornerstone," and if it behaves itself, "linchpin." Who knows, Syria may even win the gold and become the "bedrock" of a stable peace agreement. But because Israel is so busy seeking ways to advance peace with Syria, there will be no peace.
Israel enjoys the search itself - the journey, not the outcome - as if it has adopted Taoism. That's how it is working its way toward peace with the Palestinians, the Arab countries and Hamas to secure the relase of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Give the government a diplomatic problem and it will pounce on it with a topographical map.
In its own unique way, the government has created a new industry of mediators. Who hasn't tried his hand at showing Israel the way to Syria's map coordinates? The U.S. president has removed the objection to negotiations with Syria, the French president has offered his services, and the Turkish government has even achieved indirect dialogue between Israel and Syria. Last week it was Croatian President Stjepan Mesic's turn to offer his services as a mediator. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos relayed dozens of messages from Syrian President Bashar Assad, who went around the mediators and declared that he wants to renew talks with Israel. But Israel, like Frank Sinatra, will do it its way.
The road to Damascus is short and most of it has already been paved. The price is known - full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace, including normalization. Peace with Syria may also include some bonuses. Hezbollah will have to deal with a new reality, and Hamas will have to explain how it continues to seek the patronage of a country that not only recognizes Israel but maintains normal relations with it. Iran will have a hard time swallowing the fact that its closest ally in the Middle East is undermining the ideology it's trying to market about Israel. Other Arab countries may even give Israel a down payment before an agreement is signed with the Palestinians.
True, peace with Syria does not ensure regional peace or the end of every conflict. However, when Syria itself is prepared to make peace, without linking it to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which historically was Hafez Assad's demand, and without obligating other countries, it's offering a prudent peace for its own interests.
Syria can offer such a peace because the Middle East's political map has changed. Syria is no longer the isolated country it was only a year ago. Europe has renewed relations with it and is offering an economic alliance, the United States has not stopped knocking on its door, and American delegations are feeling at home in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has lifted the boycott it strictly observed for around five years. The Gulf states, particularly Qatar, are its close friends, and Turkey is a valuable partner.
The theory of Syria's isolation that was fostered by Israel and the United States under George W. Bush is gone. Syria does not need Barak's construction jargon to know that it's a "central brick" in the Middle East. And now, from a position of political strength, it's offering peace to Israel, with or without mediators.
But the change in Syria's position is unacceptable in this country. To Israel, it still looks like that old suspicious Syria, headed by an immature leader. The paradox is that this is the same leader with whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants direct dialogue - Israel's precondition for all talks with Syria. And what is Netanyahu looking for in that direct dialogue? To see the whites of Assad's eyes? Or to explain to him that Israel still prefers a state of no peace and no war?
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