The annual intelligence report presented to the government this week resembled an open debate of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which usually ends with a deluge of leaks. The intelligence community realized this ahead of time, took precautions, and lowered the level of secrecy. Sanitizing, they call it.
First there was a restricted meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The next round of meetings deviated from the norm. Instead of a meeting of the defense cabinet, with its small team of ministers, Olmert opted to present the report to the government plenary. Apparently he wanted to "share" responsibility on a subject as sensitive as Syria with all his ministers, although this does not free him from supreme responsibility as prime minister.
The way in which the intelligence officials were pushed into addressing political issues (shall we talk to Syria or not) also differed from normal procedure. This is not the role of the intelligence. Their job is to gather information and to evaluate it.
Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin warned that Syria is growing stronger. The message being projected to Bashar Assad is that Israel is not prepared to discuss peace, he said. Assad could reach the conclusion that force is the only solution. After last year's war in Lebanon, there was much talk in Syria about how Hezbollah proved that a military confrontation with Israel could achieve something. If this is the case, then Israel needs to consider the possibility of war with Syria at some future date.
At first, Yadlin was not sure that Assad's intentions were serious. Now, they say, he accepts the contention of the MI research division that Assad's proposals are genuine. This is not to say that Assad has changed his mind about the price Israel will have to pay (the Golan Heights). On the other hand, the Mossad's research division believes Assad's moves are all part of a tactical ploy to reduce international pressure on Syria.
The former head of MI, Uri Saguy, says Israel and Syria are asking the same questions: Does the other side really want an agreement? Is it capable of reaching one? Saguy believes these questions need to be thoroughly investigated. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer feel the same way.
But Major General (res.) Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council, insists that Israel must not give up the Golan. Doing so will not solve Israel's other strategic problems and may even aggravate them. The Syrians will not keep their word, and if a war breaks out, without the Golan Israel will be in a worse position than it would be with the Golan. The prime minister has been opposed to unconditional talks with Damascus from the outset, although some say there are signs that he is starting to crack.
In principle, no country should declare itself unwilling to explore the possibility of peace. The question is how this exploration should be carried out. Secret contacts are of the utmost importance. Our major precondition is that Syria end its involvement in terror against Israel. At the same time, it is unreasonable to believe that Syria will sever its ties with Iran.
Coordination with Washington is also an issue, and in this area, things are changing. Previous Israeli contacts with the Arabs were usually secret and were not coordinated with the Americans. This was the case with Egypt, at Oslo with the Palestinians, and with Jordan. Israel's interest lies in preventing war and reaching an agreement with another Arab state in a manner that will also impact on Lebanon.
We need to think like the Turks: Despite everything, it is preferable to have Bashar Assad sitting in Damascus - rather than the Muslim Brotherhood.
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