On more than one occasion, Western visitors have tried to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad that a photo in the Knesset is worth more than a thousand missiles. Senior European leaders and retired American diplomats tell him that if he really means what he says about renewing negotiations with Israel, it would be best for him to say it in a live broadcast to the Israeli public. Some have suggested that he allow the remains of Eli Cohen to be reburied in Israel, a small gesture for Syria and a big one for the Israeli public.

But Bashar, like his father and the conservatives around him, is weak in public relations. After much effort, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Moratinos and his Scandinavian colleagues were able to persuade Assad to send representatives to a public meeting with a distinguished Israeli delegation.

It's not Sadat's visit to Jerusalem or Rabin's visit to Amman, but open talks between delegates from Damascus and well-known Israeli figures are also something to be noted, provided, of course, that Assad doesn't get cold feet at the last minute.

The event is to take place three weeks from now in the Spanish capital. It will be a sort of reunion of the delegations that attended the October 1991 Madrid Conference. The Israeli delegation will include Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was foreign minister in the Barak government; Dan Meridor and Roni Milo, who were ministers in the Likud government; Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, who ran the negotiations with Syria; Labor MK Colette Avital; Dalia Rabin; and David Kimche, who was the director general of the foreign ministry and one of the Mossad's leaders.

The Madrid Plus 15 Conference will be attended by former Jordanian prime minister Fayez Tarawneh and former foreign minister Marwan Muashar. Egypt will send former foreign minister Ahmed Maher. There will be distinguished representatives from the Lebanese government, the Palestinian Authority (Fatah only), the Arab League and the Gulf states. Among the speakers will be the foreign ministers of Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, who sponsored the conference. Former senior American, Russian and UN officials and key European Union figures have accepted the invitation. The conference is being organized by the Toledo Center, headed by Ben-Ami, the NGO Search for Common Ground and the Spanish association Tres Culturas.

Ben-Ami rejects the demand of his former party colleague, vice premier Shimon Peres, that renewed talks be contingent on the closing of the terror organizations' offices in Damascus and ending arms transfers to Hezbollah.

"This demand does not exactly match Israel's approach to negotiations with Syria since 1992," notes Ben-Ami. "Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak negotiated with Damascus based on the understanding that peace with Syria, and not negotiations, is what will signify a strategic change in its behavior," he says. This equation still applies today, he says. "The demand that Syria waive its leverage even before negotiations begin is desirable, but apparently unrealistic. The truth is that it is an expression of Israel's anxiety over the price of an arrangement."

Ben Ami does not rule out the possibility that Syria's real objective is not peace with Israel, but a desire for international legitimacy and an easing of pressure following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He suggests that the Israeli government accept Assad's challenge and call the Syrian bluff, if there is one. Instead of presenting public conditions, he suggests formulating rules in quiet talks.

This is the place to mention that in the spring of 1996, at the height of the worst wave of terrorist attacks since the Oslo Accords, Israel abandoned the Palestinian track in favor of intensive negotiations with Syria. In February that year, Military Intelligence head Moshe Ya'alon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of a "clear connection" between the Syrians' interest in negotiations with Israel and the terrorist organizations' activities. He noted that the four breaks in attacks came when Syria instructed Hezbollah and the other organizations to stop the fire: during the first and second round of talks between Israel and Syria in Maryland, during U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to the region and during the visit of U.S. Vice President Al Gore. The prime minister who insisted on continuing negotiations with Syria as if there were no terrorism? Shimon Peres.

How's democracy doing?

It is well known that the admiration George W. Bush and Natan Sharansky have for each other is based on the former Israeli politician's book "The Case for Democracy." This text underlaid the U.S.'s policy of democratization in the Middle East and was required reading among members of the U.S. administration.

It is interesting that at the ceremony where Sharansky received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, Bush chose to focus his speech on Sharansky's distant past as a fighter for human rights in the Soviet Union. Given the situation in Iraq and Gaza, mentioning democratization at the White House would have been like mentioning the name Bill Clinton. The prize recipient himself dissociated the book from the democratization project, and hinted that Bush didn't comprehend what was written.

In an article published in The Wall Street Journal six months ago, Sharansky argued that the president's insistence on holding elections in a society that is not ready for democracy contributed to Hamas gaining control of the Palestinian Authority. He wrote that the president devoted too little attention to building a vital foundation for a free society, including protection of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Sharansky also hinted that Bush transformed promotion of democracy into a political tool instead of a nonpartisan issue.

Pinochet's friends

The thousands of Chileans who now live in Israel certainly did not shed a tear over the death of General Augusto Pinochet at the ripe old age of 91. They have not forgotten the relatives and friends who were killed, tortured or disappeared along with tens of thousands of others during Pinochet's regime, from 1973 to 1990. But some people among us do not let such minor details stop them from selling military equipment to criminals and even inviting them to visit the Holy Land. In the mid-1990s, when Pinochet was the supreme commander of the Chilean army, Israel Military Industries wanted to invite him to visit Israel.

The Chilean ambassador to Israel at the time, a refugee of Pinochet's regime, announced that the moment Pinochet arrived here, he himself would be on the way to Santiago. Then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin managed to persuade the government to cancel the invitation. The would-be pilgrim was offended to the depths of his kind soul, and immediately ordered an end to military purchases from Israel.

In the fall of 1997, during the Netanyahu government, the defense establishment decided it was time to renew ties with Pinochet. This time, to be on the safe side, the invitation was sent by the Nazareth Automotive Industries, a subsidiary of Machshirei Tenua (Traffic Devices), ostensibly a private enterprise. Machshirei Tenua said at the time, "The company does not have contacts with any figures that the Israeli government vetos." A senior foreign ministry official decided to thwart the diplomatic-ethical blow and leaked news of the plot to Haaretz. The criticism kept Pinochet at home, and the boycott of Israel Military Industries remained in force, at least until the following fall.

In late 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London, after the Spanish government issued an extradition order against him. The criminal was stuck with the British until his release in March 2000, after experts determined his days were numbered. It would not have taken much for this dubious honor to have gone to the Jewish state. Unfortunately, there are no indications that our defense establishment learned a lesson. As far as they are concerned, the tyrant is dead, long live the new tyrant. So long as he pays on time.