For Whom the Telephone Rings

For the next prime minister to make the right decisions about diplomatic agreements with our neighbors, what is needed is not brass epaulets, but rather clear thinking, leadership skills and political courage.

Although Hillary Clinton's election campaign was not considered the height of success, the question in her ad, "Who do you want answering the phone at 3 A.M.," has become a central one in the race for prime minister of Israel. Every child in Israel knows why a telephone - a red one, needless to say - rings in the prime minister's house in the middle of the night. Every child understands that there is one subject that cannot be put off until daylight. Behold, he neither slumbers nor sleeps, Israel's guardian against wars and terror, bombs and missiles.

In Israel, the prime minister is first of all a defense minister (sometimes, this is even formally the case), and the telephone test has become the equivalent of the tests that cadet officers must pass. Questions such as what to talk to the Palestinians about or who is the right man (or woman) to lead negotiations with the Syrians have been shunted to the margins of political discourse.

Thirty years ago, defense minister Moshe Dayan stood alongside prime minister Menachem Begin when the Likud leader picked up the phone and found Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on the line. The man who had earlier crossed political lines promptly sent his mantra, "Better Sharm al-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh," into the dust heap of history. The legendary warrior understood that peace with the largest Arab country is a security asset no less important than brigades of tanks and squadrons of fighter jets, or even territory and oil fields. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who also took the road from the army to politics, reached the same conclusion with regard to Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Ehud Barak's glorious military past gives him an advantage in the race for the red telephone at 3 A.M. But past experience teaches us that when prime minister Barak has to make diplomatic decisions that have security implications, his military experience is irrelevant.

In an interview with Haaretz in July 2006, the former head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, said that in 2000, Israel missed a rare chance to sign a peace treaty with Syrian president Hafez Assad. He said he regretted that we establish commissions of inquiry only to examine military failures, while ignoring diplomatic ones. "Imagine to yourself that the agreement with Syria had gone well - what strategic benefit we would have reaped?" asked Saguy, who headed Barak's negotiating team with the Syrians. He then answered his own question: "A strong Israel Defense Forces is important, but military might is not enough to ensure our future."

It is hard to find anyplace where the limitations of military might and the military experience of the person whose hand is on the receiver play a greater role than in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The greatest danger threatening Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state is that the Palestinians will hang up on it. This danger becomes tangible when a pragmatic intellectual like Prof. Sari Nusseibeh calls for dismantling the Palestinian Authority and transforming the struggle for independence into one for political equal rights.

In the flush of victory after the Six Day War, Dayan declared that Israel would hold onto the territories it had conquered until it got "a phone call from the Arabs." This ultimate phone call came in the spring of 2002, from Beirut - when, at the Arab League Summit in the Lebanese capital, the league's 22 members adopted the Arab Peace Initiative.

As Marwan Muasher wrote last week in Haaretz, for more than six years, Israel's leaders have had before them a historic document that proposes a formula for ending all conflicts between Israel and the Arabs, attaining a comprehensive peace and security for all sides, and normalizing relations with Israel. The former Jordanian foreign minister, who was among the architects of the initiative, echoed the warning coming from many a member of the Palestinian peace camp - that treading water will bury the two-state solution and play into the hands of Arab and Islamic elements that oppose any agreement with Israel.

To make the right decisions about diplomatic agreements with our neighbors, what is needed is not brass epaulets, but rather clear thinking, leadership skills and political courage. Such decisions can, and even should, be made at three in the afternoon. Instead of getting distracted by the question of who is most suited to answer the phone in the middle of the night, we would be better off hearing whom those in the race for the crown intend to call, and what they have to say.