Israel's Response

The referendum bill will make it difficult for Israel to start much-needed peace talks with Syria.

Even as Syrian President Bashar Assad misses no opportunity to urge Israel to sign a peace treaty with his country, the Knesset House Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would prohibit the government from authorizing a withdrawal from the Golan Heights or East Jerusalem without a referendum and a majority of 61 MKs. The bill will now be sent to the plenum for its second and third readings. This is Israel's response to Assad's declarations of peace.

The Syrian leader speaks of commercial and tourism ties, open borders and peaceful relations between the two states following the Golan's return. Meanwhile, the Knesset further ties the government's hands, erecting more and more hurdles to thwart any chance of peace. If the plenum approves this harmful bill, then even a courageous, determined, peace-seeking prime minister will find it difficult to advance a deal with Syria.

Such an agreement has lately been described as possible and attainable, perhaps now more than ever. Assad's statements are lucid and emphatic. In fact, he has repeated them again and again, to audiences in both the West and the Arab world. Perhaps his declarations are not a guarantor of his true intentions, yet Israel should have sought to challenge him and put him to the test.

Instead, Israel has crassly ignored his statements. The government's official spokespeople rarely, if ever, comment on them. And as far as we know, neither is there any serious behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity that could pave the way for the start of negotiations, either direct or indirect.

In contrast with the Palestinian peace process, the terms of a deal with Syria are clear-cut and obvious - full peace in exchange for full withdrawal from the Golan. In light of this reality, negotiations can be brief and to the point. All that is needed are good, sincere intentions on both sides.

The advantages of peace for Israel are more precious than gold: rapprochement with one of its largest and most dangerous neighbors; the weakening of Syria's ties with Iran and Hezbollah; and a far-reaching strategic change in Israel's international standing. If the world sees that Israel is bent on peacemaking and on returning occupied territories, even if only to Syria, that would change the international community's attitude toward it. It is also safe to assume that launching peace talks with a country that plays host to Hamas's political bureau could improve prospects for Gilad Shalit's release.

Presented with this plethora of opportunities, Israel should already have made a Herculean effort to quickly gauge the sincerity of Assad's statements. Instead, the proposed law - which is likely to pass - will make it even more difficult to start peace talks, as it will send a clear signal to Syria that Israel has no interest in making peace.

In such a situation, the Middle East is liable to become even more dangerous and flammable: President Assad will be forced to throw up his hands in despair because all his peace overtures have been met with silence, and Israel will be pushing him into the corner of extremism and violence. Thus not only is the referendum bill unnecessary - there is no need for referenda over peace in a country that does not hold referenda on war or any other issue - but it is also very dangerous.