Respond to Assad, Convince Bush

The unreasonable responses to the Syrian president's efforts to draw closer to Israel give rise to concern that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government will go down in history as a belligerent and uncooperative one. Such conduct, no matter what the reasons for it, is against the Israeli interest in making a supreme effort to prevent a bloody conflict, speaking unconditionally with whoever is prepared to speak with us and ultimately attempting to reach a peace agreement. A disparaging reaction to the Syrian president does not accord with common sense.

The thousands of rockets that hit northern Israel in the summer should have led to a modicum of modesty and made it clear that war is not a simple option, even for a country with the strongest army in the region at its disposal. Instead, it seems that Israeli policy has only become less independent and more boastful.

For months, Olmert has promised to find a free moment to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but the long-awaited moment has yet to arrive. There is a list of preconditions that no one even recalls, but which are supposed to be met before such a meeting can be held, and what should have turned into a routine matter - considering that these are leaders who have a shared agenda regarding terrorism, Hamas and Iran - has turned into an almost cosmic event that has been in the works for nearly a year. Government policy is now being reduced to threats and warnings, which create a frightened atmosphere of an impending Judgment Day.

A government is not a collection of soothsayers who can suffice with reading maps and making predictions. Its job is to attempt to influence events, primarily to neutralize points of friction or conflict, and to encourage dialogue where there is even the slightest indication that it is possible. Instead of giving a positive response to every initiative, even to that of an enemy that the Americans do not see as a suitable partner at the moment, and instead of sending messages about readiness to talk with whoever wants to do so - without preconditions, and even when hostile behavior is involved, the government is giving the impression of stubbornly standing in place and waiting for the next war. Even the welcome meeting between religious leaders in Israel was initiated by a producer for Israeli television, not by a political body.

The government must attempt to persuade the administration in Washington to see the possibility of beginning a wise strategic process through dialogue with Damascus. Mossad chief Meir Dagan's comment that the Syrians no longer worry about a war with Israel is a reason to promote contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad, not to do the opposite. Instead, the prime minister has adopted the language of callousness and irrelevance.

Whether Syria is turning toward peace or toward war, whether it is being deceitful or sincere, the response must be a cherished invitation to dialogue. Instead, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On looked through the binoculars to see the nice white houses the Syrians are building in Quneitra and concluded that Israel needs to build nice white houses on the Golan Heights. The difference is that Assad is building on Syrian territory, and Israel plans to build on disputed occupied territory, which all Israeli governments have agreed to return in exchange for peace. The civilian construction on the Syrian side should serve as a catalyst for talks, a sign of positive intentions - not to encourage arrogant muscle-flexing.