Deciding What We Do Want, Not Only What We Don't

It's fashionable in local diplomatic and military circles to say that without a peace deal with Syria, a third Lebanon war is only a matter of time, but even if the Americans come to the table there's no guarantee of an accord

Four days after Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz sent the air force to "paralyze the sources of firing" and preferably to "subdue" Hezbollah as well, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uri Sagi began swimming against the current, voicing doubts. While his comrades-in-arms were rattling sabers in the television news studios with one hand and "saluting" the residents of the north for standing firm with the other, Sagi had a proposal that seemed indecent at the time: to speak to the enemy. In his opinion, this enemy was and remains Syrian President Bashar Assad.

When I read out to him some of his statements, published in this newspaper on July 18, 2006, Sagi let out a sigh. Were it not for the fact that the subject was his own country, Sagi, who for four years (1991-95) was head of Military Intelligence (MI), would clip and frame that interview. "Anyone who says we have all the time in the world is not telling the truth to himself or to Israel's citizens. How long can we go on like this? .... The air force operations are important, but they are not enough to destroy Hezbollah's entire infrastructure. For that, a ground operation is necessary, which I vehemently oppose.... The more time passes the greater the danger of Kafr Kana-type mishaps." [In 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, Israeli missiles hit the Kafr Kana refugee camp by mistake, killing dozens of civilians. Also, during last year's Second Lebanon War, 57 civilians were killed in an airstrike carried out on July 29.]

Four days after the battles began, Sagi recommended reaching an agreement that would enable the Lebanese Army to deploy in South Lebanon and to receive "backing from an international force," which would deploy at crossing points on the Litani River and prevent Hezbollah from reaching the northern border and bringing in weapons and ammunition. Sagi cautioned that any such arrangement would not last for long unless Israel reached an agreement with Syria. Sagi, who headed the team negotiating with Syria under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said at the time that the key to solving Israel's long-term security problem lay in Damascus: neutralizing the Syrian threat, achieving quiet on the Lebanese border and creating an opening to Iran.

Sagi stands by every word. Today one can find partners to his view even among those who a year ago treated his critical comments as heresy. Sagi says that in recent months he has been spending a lot of time with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and MI chief Amos Yadlin. "Although the government is not outlining any clear policy regarding Syria, I was pleased to find that both of them have a good understanding of the geostrategic situation in all its complexity, and are trying to look ahead," Sagi said.

The idea that as long as there is no agreement with Syria a third Lebanon war is only a matter of time has become almost fashionable in the senior diplomatic and military ranks. "UN Security Council Resolution 1701 stopped the Second Lebanon War," says a senior official who closely monitors the situation in South Lebanon. "The big question is whether it will prevent the next war." He agrees that the answer lies in Damascus, but is not convinced that this judgment is absolute.

The official, like researchers in academia and in the intelligence community, finds Assad's behavior hard to decipher. For example, what is the meaning of Assad's recent threat to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, that an international presence on either side of the Syrian-Lebanese border - the route for supplying Iranian weapons to Hezbollah - will lead to "chaos" in Lebanon? Is Assad playing the naughty child who throws a tantrum to win the adults' attention, or does he really have no intention of renouncing his ties with Iran and Hezbollah? Perhaps all the talk of peace with Israel is just an act, and he is gambling on Israel not calling his bluff.

MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) recently learned firsthand about the difficulty of solving the Syrian riddle. In January he asked Assad's legal adviser, Riad Daoudi, who represented Damascus at the second Madrid Peace Conference, whether Syria would agree to sever its ties with terror organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas and to distance itself from Iran. Daoudi replied that if Israel agreed to return to the negotiating table, those issues would be placed on it.

At a conference this week in Brussels, Pines-Paz received a different response to the same question. This time Daoudi said Syria insists on negotiations without preconditions and that its relations with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran be discussed only after the conclusion of the negotiations. A diplomatic source says that Daoudi expressed a harder line than the official one. The understanding in Jerusalem is that Syria is linking its relations with Hezbollah and Hamas to the pace of its negotiations with Israel.

Relations with Iran are linked to relations with the United States.

Daoudi was adamant on this point: Without the U.S., there will be no negotiations. The explanation: "The Americans have to pay all the parties for the U.S. responsibility for what is happening now in the Middle East. [They have to pay] Israel as well." He was probably referring to events in Iraq and in the Gaza Strip.

Sagi says that Israel, too, cannot reach an agreement with Syria and Lebanon without the U.S. "Israel cannot permit itself to have a conflict of interest with Washington," he states. He cannot but regret that the U.S. has relinquished its status as honest broker between Israel and Syria, forcing Syria "into an extremist corner, unnecessarily."

According to Sagi, Israel has interests in common with the secular regimes in our neighborhood, or, to be more precise - enemies in common. He is referring to extra-national organizations, such as Al-Qaida, which threaten the existing order. "The talk of democratization is too early and too threatening," Sagi says. "The Syrian regime, even the Jordanian regime, cannot absorb democracy. One makes peace with the existing regime, not with democratization. The Syrians are waging a genuine struggle against extremist Islam, and mainly against the Shi'ites, who are led by non-Arab elements such as Iran."

Syria needs a shrink

The U.S. refusal to promote a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, in the name of democratization - which in light of its successes in Iraq one might assume had disappeared altogether - is viewed by Israeli diplomats as a relatively small problem. The big problem is George W. Bush's obsession with bringing down the regime in Damascus. In talks with senior U.S. officials it became clear that they haven't the vaguest idea of what would take its place. Israeli warnings of the danger that Islamic extremists would do to Syria what they are now doing to Iraq makes no impression on the president. To Bush, death provides the only release from the axis of evil.

Syria expert Prof. Eyal Zisser, of the Department of Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, says Assad is working on the assumption that the U.S. is determined to bring him down. Zisser says Assad's feelings of persecution are affecting his behavior and that Western visitors to the country report a regression in all areas related to human rights, freedom of expression and other signs of liberalization.

"Assad lacks the experience and the power needed for a Sadat-like move," Zisser says. "If there is no nanny, such as James Baker (secretary of state under President George Bush Sr., who initiated the Madrid Conference - A.E.), nothing will move. Syria needs a psychologist as much as we do. [Egypt's late president, Anwar] Sadat and [Jordan's late king] Hussein were willing to hold our hand and understood how problematic we are. This time we're dealing with a different sort of Arab. Syria is unwilling to extend gestures and make nice while Israel continues to build settlements on the Golan Heights. For them, the demand to disengage from Iran is like asking us to disengage from the U.S."

Zisser emphasizes that Assad does not really want to be stuck with Iran, which cannot fix his country's oil shortage, rising unemployment and a shaky economy. Zisser believes that if there is no change in the situation, such as a diplomatic move based on the Arab peace initiative, these problems will worsen until the whole thing explodes. The failure of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians strengthen the hand of those surrounding Assad who seek to persuade him to stop wooing the Americans and the Israelis.

Participants in the Brussels conference witnessed this internal struggle up close. The Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, who had represented Syria at the secret talks held under Swiss auspices, sat next to Dr. Alon Liel, his partner in the talks. Suleiman made a point of leaving the room whenever Daoudi opened his mouth, and vice versa. (Since his address to the Knesset in April, Suleiman has become anathema to Syrian conservatives.)

In light of the political weakness in Israel and U.S. intransigence, Sagi recommends we stop whistling in the dark and prepare the army for the next round. To his great satisfaction, Ashkenazi, who was his operations officer in the Golani Brigade, is doing what needs to be done. Nevertheless, Sagi hopes that in the coming months Israel's political leadership will decide what it does want, and not only what it does not want. He believes that if the government decides it wants to move forward and makes a concerted effort to bring the U.S. on board, a peace agreement with Syria would be within reach. Sagi is adamant that the disagreements between Israel and Syria over borders and security arrangement were solved seven years ago, and that Barak backed down at the last moment from signing an agreement with Hafez Assad.

"It's true, Syria is not nice," concludes Sagi, a man who has spent hundreds of hours with Syrians. "But what's better, to talk to countries like Syria about stable agreements or to run around in the alleys after organizations that don't want an agreement with us, like Hezbollah, which is liable to take over the government in Lebanon any day?"