Is Israel missing an opportunity to make peace with Syria? The short answer is: No. At present, neither side has the energy to make concessions; the dormant conflict is less painful. Deterrence is working in the Golan Heights and Lebanon, and the hostilities continue in terror and localized actions. The international community is not taking an interest either. Nobody is in any hurry.
The more complex answer is in fact a question: What do they mean when they talk about peace? No one in the Israeli political establishment, apart perhaps from Yahad MK Yossi Sarid, is suggesting a return to the model of pulling back to the Sea of Galilee in return for diplomatic relations - a move that was discussed during the past decade. The price seems too high and the return too meager.
"[Syrian President] Bashar Assad wants the entire Golan," says an American official, "and what are you going to get in return from the Syrians? An Israeli flag on a building in Damascus? What is that going to give you?"
There are Israeli figures who speak, in a whisper, about the dream deal. Israel will remain on the cliff line and Syria will continue to control Lebanon. They rely on optimistic hints about talks in Damascus that have been scattered by outgoing United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. Assad is subject to American pressure because of his assistance to terror in Iraq. This week, the United States sent Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to give him another warning. Under such circumstances, perhaps Assad will be tempted to give up the dream of swimming in the Sea of Galilee. The problem with this idea is that Israel cannot "give" Lebanon to the Syrians. The international community is currently calling for the independence of Lebanon and will not sacrifice it in order to expand Israel's northern border.
The "Syrian lobby" in Jerusalem is not all cut from the same cloth. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who has been calling for an examination of the Syrian option from the day he took up his post, is not talking about concessions on the Golan Heights but rather about confidence-building measures, like his initiative to export apples from the Druze villages in the Golan to Syria. Shalom has also been consistently demanding that Syria get out of Lebanon.
The common denominator among the disciples of turning to Syria is their desire for dialogue. President Moshe Katsav believes that this is good for Israel, because in this way its status in the Arab world will be strengthened and the threatening triangle of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah will be undermined. Shalom and Katsav also believe that Israel must not reject an Arab hand that is extended for peace.
The intelligence community is split. The Mossad believes that Assad does not want peace and is only aiming to reduce American pressure. Military Intelligence thinks that the Syrians have more important interests than getting back the Golan, such as the survival of the regime and the control of Lebanon. Neither organization identifies, for now, any softening in the Syrian demand for Israel to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights.
The debate in Israel, then, is not about an agreement with Syria, but rather about the very act of holding talks with it. The calculation must be tactical: Is the benefit from joint photographs and leaks about progress going to overcome the danger that Israel will back itself into the position of refusal?
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prefers to avoid talks and wraps his opposition to withdrawal in tactical considerations regarding "the importance of American pressure" and the continued Syrian support for terror.
Assad will need more than fine words and whispers to go-betweens in order to break the stagnation. If he comes to Jerusalem, he will, in a single stroke, break the Israeli obduracy - but the chance of this is zero. If he dissociates himself from the Palestinian resistance organizations, he will drag Sharon into talks. Even if he lets Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and his colleagues agree to a cease-fire, Assad can demand recompense. But as long as the situation remains unchanged, the talk of peace in Damascus and the stammering replies from Jerusalem are public relations games.
The critical mass of domestic interests and international pressures that will bring about the revival of the Syrian track has not yet evolved.
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