In April 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his convergence plan to the public. In a series of public statements, press interviews and internal political discussions, he ignited a debate that generated the feeling that the evacuation of a significant chunk of Israeli settlements in the West Bank was in the offing. The newly elected prime minister gave the impression not of a politician engaging in the usual spin for spin's sake; he gave the impression he was making a genuine statement of intent to be put at the center of his government's agenda. The plan, though, was not translated into clear-cut directives or courses of action. It has since remained an empty statement.
The Second Lebanon War indeed provided an alibi for shelving the convergence plan, but this is not the only reason it died a slow death. The initiative evaporated mostly because it did not arise from adequately fertile grass roots. Rather, it has rested on a spiderweb, if I may borrow the metaphor introduced by Hassan Nasrallah. To coax the State of Israel to conclude that it would be beneficial to withdraw from most of the West Bank, there was a need to appeal to the hearts and minds of the public and prepare the tools to execute the plan. Olmert made do with declaring his intentions, which in effect doomed the plan to fade into oblivion.
This lesson should be borne in mind in light of the headlines that have appeared out of thin air trumpeting the renewal of indirect negotiations with Syria. Even if the prospects for success seem unrealistic because of the prime minister's political circumstances, it is worth repeating that peace is not something bought like a pair of shoes in an end-of-the-year sale. Peace is the final dividend of a long, gut-wrenching political and ideological process that all of society must endure.
This process didn't even begin in the context of peace. On the contrary, the media chatter and political debate revolved around an event that unfolded by chance - the investigation against the prime minister - and the possibility that the probe would motivate Olmert to deflect public attention from the matter by reaching a breakthrough with Damascus. We are speaking of peace with Syria in terms of a narrow, one-time window of opportunity rather than the end result of a long process that has reached maturation.
Indeed, there is a certain significance in revealing the willingness of this country's political leadership to open a dialogue with the Damascus regime when the price of peace is known to both sides. Yet it is shadowed by the suspicion that ulterior motives and issues tied to Olmert's personal and political survival are driving the talks. In any event, this is the groundwork that must be laid in the run-up to the negotiations: Changing the widely held belief that the Golan is a strategic asset that must not be relinquished, even if it means war; and adopting a new approach - peace with Syria is the preferred guarantor to ensure Israel's prosperity and security.
Only after this view has gained significant traction in public opinion can the political stage begin; the stage that would translate the prevailing mood into a policy enjoying government and parliamentary backing. Next comes the part where political decisions are turned into practical courses of action. All this has yet to take place regarding talks with Syria, just as these processes were absent from the convergence plan.
One could maintain that it is unnecessary to follow the same pattern, especially if a strong leader is capable of maneuvering his way through all the stages. One could even claim that even if 75 percent of the public has expressed resistance to withdrawing from the Golan, and even if the prime minister's seat is burning beneath him, he still in principle has the legitimacy to turn the wheels in motion, to show determination and drag the country with him to a handshake with Assad. This scenario would garner some credibility if Olmert was actively preparing to implement it, by, for example, establishing a government body like the Disengagement Administration that would grapple with the challenge of evacuating and compensating 20,000 Israelis from the Golan Heights.
Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative taught us that even when an operation is being led by a charismatic, brutal leader, the result is a bitter disappointment - even when the government musters up the best of its resources and people to provide a fitting solution to the hardships of 7,000 evacuees from Gush Katif. Thus, whoever is serious about reaching an agreement with Syria needs to adequately prepare for the reabsorption of evacuees from the Golan Heights. Indeed, the idea of starting now with the preparations seems bizarre, even disconnected from the public mood and political climate. Yet, if this is the situation, then the prospect of making peace with Syria is bizarre.
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