The phenomenon repeats itself like the seasons: Once every few months, a peace signal comes to Israel from Syrian President Bashar Assad. Here a newspaper interview, there a foreign guest who happened to visit Damascus, and here a clumsy clandestine feeler. The messages are more or less identical: a willingness to renew peace negotiations in return for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been in power, the Israeli response has been identical as well: total rejection of the advances from Damascus, and a demand that it first end its support of terror. In Sharon's case, the threats to Syria are harsher, and the attacks on it enjoy American backing.
Sharon violated the consensus that it is forbidden to ignore peace feelers from the Arab world, but Assad for his part has difficulty convincing anyone of his seriousness. He repeats the slogans of his father, Hafez Assad, as though nothing has changed since then. His latest proposal looks like a retro performance. Assad invited Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and a member of the peace team from Clinton's time, to Damascus, and told him of his "strategic choice of peace." Hello, Assad? Haven't you heard that the Republicans are in power, and not the Democrats? And maybe you were disappointed by the fact that like Sharon, they're ignoring you?
In honor of Rosh Hashanah, here's some advice for Bashar Assad: When you really want peace and a diplomatic breakthrough, come and talk to us. Yes, pack up Foreign Minister Farouk Shara and the maps of the Golan, and invite yourself to Jerusalem. Like Sadat. The late Egyptian president knew in advance that he would receive all of Sinai in return for the visit, and the Syrians can also assume that the price of peace is understood in Israel. It is impossible to make do with the excuse that "Assad is not like that." As opposed to his father, he recognizes the value of public diplomacy. It's enough to see his well-covered visits to Europe and Turkey, and the exposure of his wife Asma. A side trip to Jerusalem will turn him overnight into an international statesman.
Israeli leaders, from Shimon Peres to associates of Sharon, agree that a dramatic gesture is the only way to convince the Israeli public to part with the Golan, a beautiful, peaceful region, and a favorite site for vacations and hikes. This is not the desolate Gaza Strip, which is also hard to give up. Israel has a lobby of supporters of the "Syrian channel," such as the chief of staff, the president and the prime minister, which will come to life in response to a public gesture.
The fear of negotiations with the "Arabs" is Sharon's weak point. He is willing to relinquish territories without compensation, as long as he doesn't have to enter the conference room. What will he do with a sudden visit from Assad? Will he bring down Assad's plane on the way to Ben-Gurion Airport? If he is evasive, he will be publicly exposed as an opponent of peace, and Assad will gain points. Washington isn't interested? It was surprised by Sadat's trip to Jerusalem too, and quickly recovered and provided support.
Nevertheless, the infinitesimal distance between Damascus and Jerusalem cannot be bridged at present. In his new book, "In the Name of the Father" (Hebrew), Syria expert Prof. Eyal Zisser points out four reasons why negotiations are impossible: Assad junior is not securely in power, he hasn't matured as a person and a leader, the atmosphere in the region is ugly because of the intifada, and there is no Israeli interlocutor who is willing to leave the Golan.
The truth is that in spite of the huge differences in age and experience, Sharon and Assad have a similar problem. Both are too weak to close such a deal and get it passed. Sharon is fighting for the disengagement from Gaza, and will not open a second front now against the settlers in the north. Assad will certainly have difficulty compromising more than his father did, and if he tries to dismantle Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist headquarters, he will discover that it isn't easy to get rid of these creations, just as Sharon learned when it came to the illegal outposts in the territories. Therefore Sharon is right when he estimates that a renewal of negotiations with Syria is not on the horizon.
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