Like a boy who boasts about making out with the most popular girl in school, President Katsav ran to tell the guys about his handshake with President Bashar Assad; and like any respectable statesman, wise in the ways of the world and diplomatic manners, he was quick to accompany this gossip with an authoritative commentary: "The gesture carries no diplomatic significance." President Katsav's statement epitomized the Israeli condition; a desire to have it both ways.
The leaders of the State of Israel do not have to go all the way to the Vatican to meet with Syrian leaders; they can meet them on the Golan Heights border. To create political momentum, there is no need to make use of unfortunate circumstances such as the Pope's funeral; it's enough to initiate serious dialogue with the other side.
Such contact has already been made in the past - and botched. At Shepherdstown, Virginia, prime minister Ehud Barak recoiled from finalizing the peace negotiations he was conducting with the Syrian delegation. There may not have been handshakes there - Farouk Shara, the Syrian foreign minister, refused to reciprocate Barak's outstretched hand - but the draft of a peace treaty was certainly drawn up. Except that Barak spooked and decided that the Israel public would object to the terms of the agreement - total withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for total peace. Disagreements remained concerning the exact border: The Syrians demanded a withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 lines whereas Israel insisted on a withdrawal to the international border.
Furthermore, President Bashar Assad has signaled several times in the past few months his willingness to reopen negotiations with Israel, but the Sharon government has rejected these hints, saying they were merely a ploy meant to alleviate international pressure on Damascus. The chief of staff, Moshe (Bogey) Ya'alon, believed the offer should be accepted and the intentions of the Syrian ruler seriously examined, but who pays any attention to the chief of staff?
President Katsav talked himself into a laughable fix: He declares with great fanfare that the Syrian president proffered his hand while the country of which he, Katsav, is president avoids a serious discussion with the Syrians over ending the conflict. What, then, is the meaning of Katsav's delight if the positive possibilities of the encounter - the start of peace talks - are blocked by Israel itself? And what's the point of publicizing the handshake if Katsav himself makes clear that it has no political significance?
Israel declares its willingness to negotiate with any Arab leader, but when such an opportunity arises, it gets cold feet: Peace can be reached both with Syria and the Palestinians, but there has never been a government in Jerusalem prepared to pay the price. On the contrary, passing over these two tracks has more than once served as an alibi to avoid making decisions. After all, if a peace treaty was signed with Syria, any Israeli could meet any Syrian and shake his hand. On the other hand, when there is no willingness to end the conflict, what's the big deal about a polite and one-time handshake between the leaders of the two sides?
Actually, Katsav is actually in good company: Assad was also embarrassed by the reports of the encounter with the Israeli president, as was the Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. There, at St. Peter's Basilica, surrounded by the world's dignitaries and restrained by the rules of the ceremony, the tribal leaders from the Middle East behaved in a civilized manner and shook hands; once back home they went back to being themselves: Assad and Khatami denied the encounter ever happened, while President Katsav used the opportunity finally to make the headlines.
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