Coffee or Tea, Mr. Assad?

Whoever does not know whether Assad really wants peace cannot know whether Assad wants war.

"To the best of our knowledge and in my personal assessment, as well, we are not expecting a war this summer," declared Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky, arranging the summer for us. But what is "to the best of our knowledge" and what is the meaning of "my personal assessment?" Is that the same personal or institutional assessment that can tell whether Assad wants peace? Is this the same database that led Military Intelligence (MI) to determine that Iran would have nuclear capability starting in mid-2009, after we had already heard various and sundry assessments? The same database that was unable to predict that Hamas would seize control of Gaza and, before that, that Hamas would win the elections?

The question of what those supposedly in the know really do know, and to what extent we can rely on their assessments, is a very important one.

Whoever does not know whether Assad really wants peace cannot know whether Assad wants war. Herein lies the major problem: In the absence of real knowledge, Israel's security is beginning to rely on subjective logic and, even worse, on frozen mind-sets. The mind-set, for example, that says that Assad wants Washington, not Israel; that he is preparing a war but does not want to wage it and, primarily, that Syria's entire policy is based on what Syria alone wants, and Israel plays no role whatsoever in influencing Syria's wishes.

The same is true of Iran. The working assumption that Iran will have nuclear capability in another year or two is a reasonable and worthy assumption, but is anyone bothering to examine the processes at work inside Iran at the moment? Is there absolutely no possibility of influencing Iran's ambitions? Is the internal criticism being voiced against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - the protest by students and economists, the political activity Mohammed Khatamei supporters are fomenting to prevent Ahmadinejad's re-election as president two years from now - being taken into account?

MI believes that a system of pressures and sanctions would push Iran into a diplomatic compromise that would likely postpone the realization of its plan to achieve nuclear capability, and that huge oil revenues ensure the regime's stability. However, if a rich and stable regime is likely to change its policy, wouldn't it then make sense to try to influence it? Wouldn't it make sense to attempt to conduct genuine negotiations with Syria and convince the U.S. to get involved without being allowed to shrug its shoulders as though the issue had nothing to do with it? Is Olmert's invitation to Assad to join him for tea or coffee in Jerusalem the most the Israeli prime minister can do to obtain some knowledge beyond a "personal assessment" or the deputy chief of staff's general knowledge?

The same is true of terror. The Israel Defense Forces is under the impression that in many countries and terror organizations in the Middle East there is an increasingly strong "narrative of resistance"; "according to this approach, the problems with Israel will not be solved on the negotiating table but rather through violent confrontation" (Haaretz, July 11). There is nothing like this "impression" to demonstrate the extent to which Israel is stuck in the passive approach that prefers to wring its hands in profound distress in the face of threatening developments in the Middle East and wait until the prophecy fulfills itself. As though we were talking about a meteor plummeting from the sky that no force could divert from its lethal route. As though the narrative has only one creator.

There is also nothing like Kaplinsky's statement regarding the possibility of a war this summer to prove the extent mere words, or a "personal assessment" by a senior commander, can create a reality. We can imagine what would happen if an Israeli statesman - excuse me, a senior Israeli politician - were to get up and create a new reality, one not dependent only on Assad's statements, one that does not assume Iran is imprisoned inside one page of history that cannot be turned. One that does not surrender when confronted with a "narrative of resistance," but tries to disprove this narrative through a new Israeli policy. But until this statesman stands up, Israel is fated to be imprisoned inside intelligence assessments instead of vice versa.