Once again, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert turned down the offers yesterday of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his foreign minister, Walid Mualem, to renew the peace talks between the two countries. The relative softening heard in the Syrian stance, with its willingness to embark on negotiations without preconditions, did not affect Olmert's position. Nor did the timing of the call from Damascus, which was directed at the Western media, just when Iran was holding a conference on denial of the Holocaust. Assad was signaling that he does not share the call of his ally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for the destruction of Israel.
The argument presented by Olmert for rejecting the offer from Damascus is the position of the United States. According to the prime minister, at a time when President George W. Bush is demanding that Syria cease incitement toward war, it is not appropriate for Israel to embark on negotiations with Assad. Furthermore, Assad's motives for renewing the negotiations do not overlap with those of Israel.
Undoubtedly the U.S. position is of supreme importance from Israel's point of view. Olmert is placing at the top of his priorities the effort to counter the Iranian nuclear program, and assumes that coordinating views with Washington is now more important for Israel than ever before. Accepting Assad's offer, without previous agreement from the U.S. administration, would be a dangerous gamble, in Olmert's view, that could only hurt Israel. In any case, in the absence of active American backing, there is no real chance for an agreement with Syria.
The problem is that the Syrian challenge looks different from Jerusalem than from Washington. The United States can chance tensions with Assad without paying a high price for it. But from Israel's point of view, the meaning of saying "no" to a possibility of a peace agreement with Syria is that it is best to take a chance on war, rather than to give up the Golan Heights.
The government of Golda Meir took a similar chance in 1973, when she rejected the peace feelers of then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Meir also relied on the American administration, which accepted the stalled diplomatic situation in the Middle East out of Cold War-related considerations. The result was that Israel found itself embroiled in a terrible war, at the conclusion of which it returned every last millimeter of Sinai to Egypt.
Olmert should not follow in Golda's footsteps, which caused a national catastrophe. He must seriously consider Assad's proposals, and maximize coordination with the Americans. This is the view of the Labor Party, and even Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu is suggesting talks with Assad, during which Israel will present him with its demands that Syria relinquish terrorism, distance itself from Iran and cease providing arms to Hezbollah.
Sticking with a policy of refusal will not benefit Israel in any way. Israel will not receive greater international support with respect to the Iranian threat to destroy it, and will not be able to rely on the world's support if war breaks out with Syria. Such a war will be viewed as a war of choice over the annexation of the Golan Heights, a war that could have been avoided. It is therefore important to exhaust the diplomatic efforts with Syria instead of waiting for an outbreak of war.
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