"Anyone who thinks that our talking with Syria would sever them from Hezbollah is mistaken," Mossad chief Meir Dagan told a closed forum last week. However, he added, "I do believe Syrian President Bashar Assad could agree to expel Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Damascus and stop supporting them."
Nevertheless, Dagan issued a clear warning about the dangers of talks with Syria: "If we enter negotiations with Assad and they fail, the danger of war will be greater than if there were no negotiations at all," he said.
In the discussion, Dagan laid out his views on the Syrian issue in detail. Yet sources who were present at the meeting said that his bottom-line position remained unclear, and at times, he even contradicted himself. This may have been related to his belief, as he put it, that "the decision on whether to resume negotiations with Syria should not be the business of the intelligence agencies."
"I'm not a politician," he said. "I'm an intelligence person, and it's not my job to say whether we need to negotiate with Syria; that is the job and the decision of the prime minister and the government. My job is to present assessments and risks."
Nevertheless, these sources said, their general impression was that Dagan, one of the most dominant figures in the security establishment, believes that talks with Syria would do more harm than good.
This contradicts the views of Military Intelligence (including both MI chief Amos Yadlin and the head of the research department, Yossi Beiditz), the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council, all of which have said publicly that they believe the peace signals Assad is sending are serious. Dagan, in contrast, has expressed doubts about Syria's good intentions several times over the last few months. In December, for instance, he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that there is no indication that Syria has taken more flexible positions or that it wants peace.
These divergent views have been evident both in periodic briefings by intelligence officials to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and in the national intelligence assessment presented to the government in February. At that briefing, Dagan urged the cabinet "not to be led astray by the peace signals from Syria, as they are meant to remove international pressure from Damascus."
However, these differing conclusions are not based on different data; all of the agencies possess roughly the same information. What differs is their interpretation.
In contrast, the intelligence community is united in its assessment that Syria's recent military buildup is defensive rather than offensive, and is meant to prepare the armyto meet a possible Israeli attack.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz weighed in on the debate Sunday by saying, "If I were the prime minister of Israel, and the Syrian president said, 'Come, let's meet tomorrow and start to talk,' I would not be afraid to meet the Syrian president and listen to him. But the question is not just the Golan Heights. We also need to ask where Syria will be on the fundamentalist axis, whether it will break with Iran, whether it will stop giving protection to Hamas and about the flow of arms to Hezbollah."
Peretz, who was speaking in an interview with Channel 10 television, added: "It is impossible to ignore what is happening with the Syrian army, and we must study its preparations and arms buildup. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the voices of peace emanating from there. Therefore, we need to take a courageous step and examine these voices of peace, including via concealed channels involving contacts through third parties and other countries. We must work to prepare the infrastructure so that there can be agreements; the second thing is that we need to announce that we are not afraid to meet with Syria's president."
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