It seems too good to be true. But when the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, comes out of a meeting with the president of Syria with the news that Bashar Assad is prepared to work out a peace agreement with Israel and make the region a safer place, it's worth a try.
We haven't even digested this proposal from the man responsible for supplying most of the missiles that Hezbollah fired at us in the Second Lebanon War, and Assad has already revealed in an interview to a Qatari newspaper that Erdogan told him Olmert was prepared for a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
As is to be expected, this has thrown the whole country into a tizzy: He's serious, he's not serious; it will work, it won't work. But what does it really matter? Isn't talking better than shooting?
Our practice with Arab leaders has been that we never pay attention to what they say publicly. We didn't take Sadat seriously when he declared he was willing to sacrifice a million soldiers to recover land in Sinai. We didn't believe him, and got zapped with the Yom Kippur War. We didn't believe Sadat when he declared that he was willing to appear in person in the Knesset to bring peace. He surprised us again: He came and addressed the Knesset.
Our luck was that Menachem Begin was the prime minister at the time, and not Golda Meir, who never believed a word that came out of an Arab leader's mouth. If Golda was in power back then, the first question she would have asked was what he planned to say in the Knesset. The visit would never have happened.
Begin didn't care what Sadat would say in the Knesset. What was important in his mind was the historic breakthrough of a peace treaty with Israel's greatest and most powerful foe. For better or for worse, the peace treaty with Egypt, which brought in its wake a peace treaty with Jordan, has held up for 30 years.
To the credit of Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, let it be said that they all strove to make peace with Syria with varying degrees of enthusiasm so we could finally become a country with recognized and viable borders, and they did so in the belief that it would be easier to solve the Palestinian problem when Israel was at peace with countries that had plotted to destroy it.
All these endeavors failed, both because then president Hafez Assad played tough and because Israel fell in love with the Golan Heights and its charms, not to mention the defense establishment's refusal to give up the Golan for strategic reasons.
According to Erdogan, Assad wants the talks to start at a low level, and only when positive results are achieved to have the leaders of the two countries meet. This low-level approach is doomed from the start. The greatness of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty was that the end was known in advance. Sadat knew he would receive all of Sinai, and Israel knew there would be a contractual peace agreement.
Working out the nitty-gritty was indeed a nightmare that dragged on for a year and a half, until a formal treaty was signed on the White House lawn. In retrospect, if the process had begun with low-ranking officials haggling over the details without knowing what lay at the end, the talks would have gone bust. Ultimately, that is what has happened in various encounters with the Syrians.
Assad's proposal is the sort of thing where you need to find out the end first. Syria has formal rights to the Golan Heights in the same way that Egypt had formal rights to Sinai. From our perspective, the Golan - like Sinai - is not part of the Greater Israel dream. We are not sentimentally bound to it as a holy place. What we have are bitter memories of bloodshed caused by Syrian aggression and infiltrating tanks.
Our experience with Syria's keeping its promises with respect to military activity along the border has been satisfactory. The trouble is that while Syria may not be involved in any incidents outright, it has become a lifeline for Hezbollah, providing patronage, money and missiles, from Iran and its own arsenals. Syria plays host to the masterminds of Palestinian terrorism in Damascus and, above all, threatens us with its strategic alliance with Iran.
A peace agreement with Syria is the kind of thing that Israeli leaders need to examine under a microscope. It must include evicting Palestinian terror chiefs from Syria, an end to arming Hezbollah and, most importantly, severing strategic ties with Iran.
There is nothing that could create a more positive change in the Middle East than a peace accord between Israel and Syria. If Assad understands what is required of him, and he really wants it, that is stronger than any Israeli leader afraid that concessions on the Golan Heights will be rejected by the Knesset opposition or Israeli public opinion.
Go for it, Olmert.
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