Peace with Syria should come first
Stopping Syria from sliding into Iran's arms is more urgent than solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Just as we received the go-ahead for opening proximity talks with the Palestinians, Military Intelligence released an analysis of what is going on in Syria - namely, that President Bashar Assad is prepared to examine the possibility of a peace agreement with Israel.
This is not the first time Syria's name has popped up in the headlines as soon as some peace negotiation begins. But this is the first time the army's top brass has considered it incumbent on us to take Syria out of the circle of belligerents.
Syria is in a dilemma, between rapprochement with the West and joining the Axis of Evil. The latter option would make Syria a future target for the sanctions that are now to be imposed on Iran, and/or for an Israeli strike.
Though Assad senior insisted on tough terms - dipping his feet in the Kinneret - Syrian feet will never reach the Kinneret via an agreement. For one thing, the Kinneret has shrunk. And for another, Assad junior is more aware of the fact that his regime is dominated by the Alawite minority and constitutes a future target for radical Islam.
After Bashar Assad said he was ready for peace, Israel destroyed his nuclear reactor - but both sides kept silent. That was his "thinking" phase.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and Saddam Hussein's Iraq was finished off, Assad appears to have decided he prefers survival: maintaining his regime, receiving American political and financial guarantees and getting back the Golan Heights, which his father lost in a war.
The Golan is no more sacred than the vast territory Israel returned to Egypt for a peace agreement. An agreement with Syria - the last of the Arab states that tried to wipe Israel out on the day it was established - would close the circle. It is not by chance that officers who served as GOC Northern Command believe an attempt to achieve a peace arrangement with Syria is worth the effort.
One of Israel's problems, according to every senior Israel Defense Forces officer, is that its actions are not moving it any closer to a peace agreement. No permanent agreements emerged from the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, the Gaza evacuation, the Second Lebanon War or Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Some have compared the government to a local bus that stops at every station, but never reaches its destination.
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the editors of a major American newspaper that Assad is sitting on the fence. At times he commits to Iran, at times he gives Hamas shelter, at times he transfers weapons to Hezbollah and at times he speaks with Israel about peace. Sometimes he does all four simultaneously. Assad must decide whether he wants to be Muammar Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein.
It is time for the United States and Israel to force Assad to make a decision. For the sake of regional peace, it is important to take Syria out of the belligerents' circle. This would effect a profound strategic change in the entire region, first and foremost by isolating Iran and weakening Hezbollah. In any case, Syria should not be allowed to sit on the fence.
The price tag is clear. It's the Golan Heights. But unlike the places to be discussed in proximity talks and direct negotiations with the Palestinians, the Golan is not a holy site. Neither Abraham our patriarch nor Sarah our matriarch are buried there, and returning it for peace would not involve all those messianic emotions with which the Greater Land of Israel people are imbued. It's simply a lovely area.
But what wouldn't we do for peace? And if the Syrians want, they can turn it into a tourist site, as Egypt did with the Sinai.
The Palestinian Authority and Iran do not want us to reach an agreement with Syria. Some senior defense establishment officials believe Assad wants to make a deal, but is waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to signal that there is a basis for negotiations.
But defense officials believe that in its present composition, which is wholly right-wing, the government will have difficulty making an agreement with the Palestinians, as this involves major concessions in the territories. "This goat will yield no milk," one observer said cynically.
Stopping Syria from sliding into Iran's arms is more urgent than solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel must give U.S. President Barack Obama a proposal for a short, swift process with Syria - a peace agreement at one go, not in dribs and drabs. That would serve America's interests, deal Hamas a blow and give the Palestinians an incentive to stop playing prima donna and miss their chance again.
If Netanyahu has the courage to offer Assad peace for the Golan, we could finally invert the Biblical saying and announce that out of the north shall come good.