Endgame in Damascus and Gaza

Winograd Committee member Yehezkel Dror believes Israel should have entered talks with Syria right after last summer's war and should not rule out talks with Hamas, either.

If the official in the Prime Minister's Office is to be taken seriously, the Winograd Committee has already accomplished something. "Do you really believe that after all the troubles with the Second Lebanon War, [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert will take the chance that one day he will have to explain to another committee of inquiry what he did to prevent war with Syria?" the official asked. He suggested that the prime minister is being truthful when he says he is examining the sincerity of Syrian President Bashar Assad's intentions regarding peace.

A senior official in the security establishment has recently suggested treating Assad's messages regarding peace quite seriously, because if we don't, the alternative will not include a continuation of the status quo. The official's comments are quoted in "Restarting Israeli-Syrian Negotiations," a detailed report released this month by the International Crisis Group, an independent, Brussels-based, nongovernmental organization. One of the founders of the group, which aims to prevent and resolve deadly conflict via field-based analysis and advocacy, is Thomas Pickering, formerly U.S. undersecretary of state and ambassador to Israel.

The senior Israeli official quoted in the report told the Crisis Group researchers - led by Rob Malley, a top National Security Council official in the Clinton administration - that Syria is behaving like a country preparing for war, and that if the present trend continues, war will indeed break out. Israeli diplomats and security officials have compared the situation on the Syrian front to the situation with Egypt on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.

The report quotes MK Yisrael Hasson, the No. 2 man in the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, as saying that the real question is whether Israel will begin negotiations with Syria now or in another six months, when the tension rises and the threat of war looms.

"It won't have to be a conventional military confrontation or a guerrilla attack, for Syria has many ways of increasing the tension - a mere threat of missiles, for instance," said Hasson, former deputy chief of the Shin Bet security service. "The question is do we need a confrontation to get

No 'central brain'

If it becomes clear that Olmert hasn't done enough to prevent war with Syria, he'd be better off not appointing Winograd Committee member Prof. Yehezkel Dror to the next such panel. In the draft of his new book, "A Breakout Political-Security Grand-Strategy for Israel," Dror - a political science professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute - leaves no room for doubt about his opinion on the prime minister's Syria policy.

"Israel doesn't always have to follow the United States' policy line," writes Dror. "Sometimes it's preferable to encourage the United States to open talks with a 'boycotted' party, when it benefits Israel and also, according to Israel's best judgment, benefits the United States. Dialogue with Syria after the war in the North is an example of this."

Dror rejects Olmert's precondition for talks with Syria, and says: "A condition like cessation of support for terror activity is justified only when there is a basis for thinking that the other side will meet the condition, or when negotiations without fulfillment of the condition would encourage activity that is hostile to Israel ... It's preferable not to set preconditions, but rather to direct the negotiations themselves toward fulfilling the conditions - or, alternatively, to open negotiations in unofficial ways."

Dror is not convinced that even Iran is a "total enemy" that justifies a decision by Israel to refrain from negotiations for fear of projecting an image of weakness and fear. "This is not self-evident," he explains, "and requires further deliberation."

But a 2005 Israel Prize laureate for political science doesn't hang his hopes on the level of deliberations conducted by the political leadership and the intelligentsia. "Israel, with important but too few exceptions, lacks outstanding diplomatic and, moreover, spiritual-ethical leadership," writes Dror. "The Israeli government, with all the quality of many of its staff, lacks a real 'central brain.' The vast majority of Israeli intellectuals (referred to as 'men of letters,' for some reason), tend toward 'closed' positions on the left and occasionally on the right, while avoiding expression of original political ideas."

Dror also has an opinion about the failures in the south of the country: In the draft of his book, he criticizes Israel's moderate response to the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip after the disengagement.

"All rocket attacks on us must be met with a punitive 'disproportionate' response," writes the "father" of systems analysis in Israel. "Under no circumstances should a non-state entity that is not sensitive to deterrence be allowed to establish a cache of assault weapons, like Hezbollah rockets. A similar cache must not be allowed to be built within Palestine."

However, Dror believes that deterrence and preventive-destructive activities should become primary methods of home front defense only when the main route to ensuring that defense has been blocked. The professor wants us to constantly keep in mind that this route involves making peace with our neighbors. Dror has no problem with holding talks, even indirect ones, between Israel and Hamas, and is not convinced that they are predestined to fail.

Blame it on Haniyeh

Fortunately - and possibly to the credit of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who appointed him - the new chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, is among a small group of top Israel Defense Forces officials who don't believe that aircraft and artillery alone can solve the Israeli-Palestinian violent conflict. In internal discussions that took place before Ashkenazi left the army the first time, and while he served as director general of the Defense Ministry, he showed a great deal of understanding for all matters related to the relationship between the political situation and the security situation in the territories. Ashkenazi is a big believer in the West Bank separation fence, but doesn't put much faith in the ability of concrete walls to put an end to a popular uprising.

To judge by his response after the barrage of Qassams was launched on Independence Day, it appears that unlike his predecessor, the stubborn Golani fighter feels more than a slight "tremor in the wing" when he dispatches the air force to bomb a wanted militant in the heart of a residential district.

The prime minister preferred Wednesday to deal with the blurring of distinctions between Hamas' political-governmental wing and its military wing, rather than be required to draw a connection between the Hamas of Nablus and the Hamas of Gaza. Olmert expects that just as Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank too will disengage from Gaza. Israel can assassinate nine Palestinians in the West Bank, few of them Hamas operatives, on Independence Day eve, but Hamas has to keep from firing on Sderot from Gaza on Independence Day.

It's far more convenient for Olmert to dump the Gaza escalation in the lap of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh than to discuss a cease-fire (tahadiyeh) in the West Bank with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. In his last meetings with Olmert, Abbas reiterated his request to expand the cease-fire to the West Bank. The prime minister wasn't ready to listen. A comprehensive cease-fire is the first step in the Arab League's peace initiative. So what if Olmert welcomed that initiative? What's the connection?

'Disneyland bereavement'

Like all Israeli holidays, Independence Day is closure day in the West Bank. All paths leading from the territories to Israel are blocked; among those kept out are the minority of Palestinians who have entry permits to Israel. What is less well known than the fact of the closure is that there are also times when even the roads in the heart of the territories are closed off to the 2.5 million people who live there.

The Binyamin Regional Council, headed by settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein, decided to hold its main Memorial Day ceremony for fallen soldiers and other security officials in Wadi Harmiya, on the road between Ramallah and the Tapuah junction, not far from the settlement of Ofra. Official IDF representatives participated in the ceremony, which was held in conjunction with the Binyamin sector brigade.

As a result of the closure of the main road (Route 60), the northern part of the West Bank was cut off from Ramallah for a few hours. The IDF spokesman said that while the ceremony took place, Palestinian traffic was directed to alternative roads, "as is the practice everywhere in Israel where roads and traffic routes are blocked due to memorial ceremonies."

It's worth rereading that statement; it is the essence of the 40-year-long love-affair between the army and the settlers. The local council chose to hold the ceremony on a major traffic route, and the army chose, "as is the practice everywhere in Israel," to close the road. In other words, from the IDF's perspective, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, everything is the same. There's no difference between the Ramallah-Nablus road and the Tel Aviv-Haifa road.

It's not by chance that the settlers decided to hold the memorial ceremony in Wadi Harmiya. The IDF spokesman confirmed that the event took place where seven soldiers and six civilians were killed during hostilities - a dry summary of the roadblock scene in the absurd play of the outposts. Sarah Lisha, a resident of the Neveh Tzuf settlement, was killed in a November 2000 terror attack near that intersection. After the attack, "as is the practice," the settlers established an outpost there. In order to protect the outpost, "as is the practice," the IDF caved in to settler pressure and set up a roadblock there. The particularly problematic location of the roadblock made the soldiers a most convenient target for militants.

Indeed, in March 2002 a Palestinian sniper fatally shot 10 Israelis there, including seven soldiers, and escaped unharmed. An IDF inquiry deemed the roadblock a failure and recommended its removal. Wallerstein, "as is the practice," threatened that if the IDF were to abandon the deathtrap, his buddies would establish another outpost in the same area. To illustrate the threat, the Binyamin council head - whose salary comes from public funds - moved his office to the old British police building nearby.

Robi Damelin - the mother of David, one of the soldiers killed in the above-mentioned attack - heard about the memorial ceremony for her son and the other victims for the first time on Wednesday. From me. She is not upset that the organizers didn't invite her, but is angry at the IDF for closing the road. This is the last place in the world, she says, where she would have wanted a ceremony in her son's memory to be held.

The bereaved mother hasn't forgotten what Wallerstein said after the disaster struck: "The soldiers are here to protect us, not themselves." Damelin, an activist in the Parents Circle-Families Forum - an organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families that support peace and reconciliation - has a certain way of describing the Memorial Day ceremony, as well as the settlers' plan to build a Yad Lebanim memorial hall on the site. In her eyes, it is "Disneyland bereavement."