Text size

Israel is once more contemplating whether to do an Arab leader a favor and determine that he is truly interested in making peace. Whether to grant him a seal of approval, and in so doing, enable him to request the lifting of Western sanctions, or reject him for another decade until he matures. Come back when you're older.

The ongoing disagreement with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who came to power 7 years ago, pertains to whether he is someone to talk to and not to whether there is anything to talk about with Syria. Does Assad mean business, or is he still a 42-year-old kid?

The debate is based on two strategic conceptions. The first is that in the Middle East, one signs agreements with leaders, as opposed to nations. After all, the states of the region are headed by tyrants, whose ability to survive can determine the durability of a treaty. The second assumption is that signing a peace agreement with Israel is a privilege that Israel deigns to grant its partners.

This is not strictly an Israel perception. It comes neatly packed straight from Washington. The U.S. administration recognizes that any peace deal between an Arab country and Israel requires an American dowry. And for that, the prospective groom must first obtain the in-laws' approval.

This is fair enough, except the American in-law is not too keen on seeing Assad receive peace with Israel when he is still suspected of aiding the terrorist organizations operating in Iraq. Hence, President Bush is forcing a linkage between the Iraq War and the Arab-Israeli conflict, even though the two conflicts are not interdependent. Bush is therefore ready to prolong the Syrian-Israeli standoff and make it a hostage of the Iraqi imbroglio.

Just or unjust, the American interest prevents Israel from addressing a homemade paradox. Why are the statements of the unreliable Assad that he might consider acting with force against Israel to regain the Golan Heights received here with total credence, when his references to peace are subjected to the scrutiny of microscopic analysis?

After all, if Assad's belligerent intentions are credible, so, too, should be his peaceful intentions. If he is willing to embark on such a potentially costly military gambit, then we can assume that he will be willing to launch a similar maneuver with regard to peace.

This reasonable assumption, however, finds its way blocked by a colossal obstacle: the famous Israeli fixation that leads Jerusalem to believe that every Arab state - with the exception, that is, of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Tunisia, Oman, Morocco and perhaps a few others - is serious only when it comes to war. Talk of peace, however, is invariably a bluff, designed to camouflage hidden intentions and buy time for the preparations for the next war.

This perception, too, is false. For those who claim Assad is preparing for war cannot seriously go on to argue that the Syrian leader needs peace to prepare Syria for that war. He is well prepared as it is.

The trouble with the negotiations with Syria does not end with Assad himself, but includes the package he is able or unable to deliver. Israel is not simply interested in a bilateral peace agreement with Syria, such as that which it has with Jordan or Egypt. Through Assad, is seeks as well to neutralize Hezbollah and Iran.

In addition, Israel also aims to secure the Iraqi bonus for the U.S., demanding on top of everything else that Hamas and Islamic Jihad hightail it out of Damascus. Anything short of that, Israel argues, is just not worth the effort.

The package Israel is bucking for is a brazen one. Israel does not demand of Turkey that it terminate its relations with Iran, nor will Israel sever its ties with Egypt if it resumes its diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic.

Moreover, Israel would be willing to sign a peace deal with Lebanon even with Hezbollah maintaining its presence on the border. It will not turn its back on Saudi Arabia, which regards the Palestinian unity government, in which Hamas is a participant, as legitimate. Syria, though, is a different matter.

In order to be regarded as a partner for peace, Assad must satisfy criteria no less demanding than the ones set by the Interior Ministry for allowing the reunification of Palestinian families from the territories with their Israeli relatives.

With terms such as these, it is indeed best to prepare for war.