First, say yes
At no point should Israel find itself in a situation in which an Arab country offers to negotiate and Israel refuses.
At no point should Israel find itself in a situation in which an Arab country offers to negotiate and Israel refuses. In the 1970s, president Anwar Sadat, in an interview with Newsweek, offered to negotiate with Israel for peace in return for occupied territories. Golda Meir, "Madam No," said under no circumstances. Our arrogant leaders maintained at the time that it was just a public relations ploy. Until the Yom Kippur War hit us. We took him up on his offer late, and paid with 3,000 lives.
A great deal of time has passed since. We have signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, two out of the three neighboring countries that attacked Israel in 1948. Syria has remained the most intransigent and hostile of them all, unremittingly assisting terror organizations, by, for instance, giving refuge and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But since 1973, Syria has taken care not to activate terror from within its borders. Assad senior had something of the yekke in him, and believed agreements should be honored. And when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister for the second time, there was even a kind of secret understanding between them, that Israel was holding "a deposit that belongs to him" - the Golan Heights - against a future arrangement.
But every attempt at negotiations over the years was nipped in the bud for ostensibly foolish reasons. Mainly because Syria demanded everything, including the right of its soldiers to dip their feet in the Kinneret. In the second Iraq war, Assad found himself trapped and loathed as a collaborator with the axis of evil. And it is precisely from that dark corner that Syria emerges with a peace campaign "with no prior conditions."
In an interview with the Washington Post, the Syrian foreign minister called on Olmert to negotiate without prior conditions, and not from the point where previous negotiations stopped or failed. Bashar Assad reinforced his foreign minister's statements in an interview to an Italian newspaper: Our intentions are real, and if Olmert is unable to decide, then let Washington decide for him. There is a sense of a turning-point in the air, not only toward Israel but perhaps even toward the United States.
Syria is uncomfortable with its central position in the axis of evil. This is the only way to explain the recent outpouring of dovishness from Damascus. If his day of reckoning with Iran is coming, Assad prefers to send America a message in the spirit of Gaddafi: "How do we get out of here?" He has no desire to be worn down by the madman from Tehran.
In a position paper for the Council for Peace and Security, Dr. Nimrod Novick, advisor to Shimon Peres during his premiership, wrote that Assad was impressed with the fact that Israel was prepared to embark on a military campaign and expose its citizens to rocket barrages. And when its civilian population was shot at, Israel did not end the war nor shrink from attacking populated areas in Beirut.
Israel proved its intelligence and operational capabilities in destroying the long-range rocket array and its launchers and still enjoyed the diplomatic cover of the Americans, who blocked the Security Council from forcing a cease-fire. From a strategic perspective, Syria has for the near future lost Hezbollah as a proxy for attacking Israel from Lebanese territory.
Calls for negotiations have not come from pure intentions. Assad's regime is concerned about his involvement in Iraq, concerned about the renewed momentum in the investigation into the murder of Rafiq Hariri, about Syria's isolation from of the bloc of moderate Arab countries, and most of all, he does not want to be around should Bush decide to respond or to strike.
Still, it is clear that the central condition to negotiations without prior conditions was - and is - the Golan Heights. The Golan is not inscribed in the Bible and is not the heart's desire of the messianic settlers. From our perspective, it is a matter of quality of life for 33 years, a beautiful view, and of course, strategic location - "the eyes of the nation" which, if given up, will require arrangements to ensure first and foremost our security in the North.
Ehud Olmert's harsh opposition to Syria's initiative is not wise. Bush will go home, but we will still be here. If a government needs an agenda, the Syrian challenge is one of those national agenda items Olmert so disparages, and which require courage and intelligence. That a rose garden will bloom from this bud is perhaps unlikely so long as Iran is around threatening humanity. But Israel must always be ready to move, never passive in its aspirations for peace. Even if one of our greatest enemies extends a hand to us, we must first of all say yes.