A Brief History of Lost Peace

In recent months the Syrian president has been signaling that he is interested in renewing negotiations for a peace treaty with Israel. The government has been turning a cold - nay, frozen - shoulder.

In recent months the Syrian president has been signaling that he is interested in renewing negotiations for a peace treaty with Israel. The government has been turning a cold - nay, frozen - shoulder. It is indifferent, as if it cannot even hear.

Thirty-five years ago, I went to Golda Meir, excited as could be, bearing an indirect but sanctioned message from the Egyptian president that Anwar Sadat was willing to have peace talks. Golda fixed a cold eye on me and asked, "Do you know what he wants from us? He wants all of the Sinai, and it's out of the question. If looks could kill, I would have been dead long ago."

After this refusal, the Yom Kippur War came down upon us, and four years later, Menachem Begin rose to power, conceded all of the Sinai with the active assistance of Ariel Sharon - and peace became a reality.

The current Syrian bungle reminds me of that Egyptian bungle of 35 years ago. Leaving Golda's room, I was sad, disappointed and worried. She got on the phone to a few of her friends and my friends to report that "something has happened" to Yossi in the past few weeks, that he'd gone completely mad.

Even before Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister, an argument broke out between us that intensified after his election, when I was a member of his cabinet. Unlike the public perception, I was actually a "Syriologist," not a "Palestineologist." I felt that the big diplomatic move should be taken in the Syrian arena, and if we were able to reach a settlement there, it would then be easier for us to deal with the Palestinian problem.

Rabin thought otherwise. He subsequently admitted to me that perhaps he had erred, and that it might have been wiser to deal with Syria before Palestine.

Shortly before the murder that disrupted everything, Rabin asked me to his office and disclosed, with uncharacteristic nervousness and in the most surreptitious manner, that he had given the Americans a message in which he had expressed a readiness to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights.

The withdrawal would be in exchange for a peace treaty, normalization of relations, water supply arrangements and early warning systems. Had I not heard Rabin saying it with my own ears, I would not dare to report it. Rabin was succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu, and according to several sources, both American and Israeli, he too gave his commitment to an Israeli descent from the Golan Heights under identical conditions.

Netanyahu may now deny it, but all of us are familiar with his denials and know how to assess their real substance. Ehud Barak, who succeeded Netanyahu, entered negotiations with the Syrians, and even personally took part in them.

Barak claims to have unmasked the real face of Yasser Arafat at Camp David, but there is no doubt that at Shepherdstown, Barak's face was uncovered. There are contradictory versions of what happened at Camp David, but everyone concurs on Shepherdstown. All agree that at the last minute, Barak got cold feet and without batting an eyelid voided all earlier commitments he had spoken of to the Americans and the Syrians. Thus, a settlement ran aground yet again, for the umpteenth time.

The recent signals from Bashar Assad have succeeded in baffling even our all-knowing intelligence community and the supreme command of the IDF. Opinions are divided - some say Assad is serious, others say he's only maneuvering. In the meantime, we sit on our hands, doing nothing.

The government and the army's explanations for the panicky paralysis are ludicrous and infuriating - Assad is weak, they say, and merely wants to alleviate international pressure to be freed from diplomatic isolation. If that's so, then great.

After all, when are we going to hold negotiations? When the partner's sense of confidence grows stronger and his condition improves? Wouldn't it be better to trap the other side at the negotiating table when he is in a weaker state?

The truth is entirely different. It was and still remains the same truth that guided Golda - you know exactly what Assad wants from us, he wants the entire Golan Heights, and it is out of the question.

After the next eruption occurs, and an ill wind blows in from the north, and after we count our dead, successive generations of chiefs of staff and heads of military intelligence will convene. With the patronage of some prestigious think tank, they will hoist aloft their misguided versions of what happened. Perhaps even an entire Herzliya Conference will be devoted to this fascinating subject.

Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak will open or close the conference. Shimon Peres will deliver one of his speeches. And only after this will a prime minister be elected here, who like Begin in his time, will withdraw from every last meter of the Golan Heights.