Once More the Smell of Falafel

Making peace is not a bitter medicine that needs to be taken in doses. The impression is that even without a detailed plan the Mideast is preparing to give the peace process another chance.

No American plan has been drawn up, no detailed declaration has been made and no document has been written. If an American policy exists it is one of early signs, like before a tsunami. For example, it's possible to conclude from U.S. President Barack Obama's speech that he is willing to give Hamas a chance to participate in the diplomatic process if it recognizes Israel, not as a Jewish state but simply as a state. U.S. relations with Syria have already changed, with senior government officials and senators visiting Damascus and the announcement that an American ambassador will be appointed after a four-year absence. A Palestinian state is the axis on which Obama's policy revolves, even though he did not detail the nature of such a state, and U.S. policy is clear on one issue only: no more settlements.

No more settlements, and what else? An ambassador to Syria, and what next? Nothing. Will they not present us with an entire plan so we can oppose it? Or at least raise 87 objections? Piece by piece, Israel will just have to hop behind the United States and Arab countries. One concession, then another, so the cost won't seem excessive, while on the way gifts will be handed out, too. Syria, too, is beginning to pay: It has exhibited goodwill, not only by not opposing the Arab foreign ministers' initiative, but mostly by pushing Hamas to come to terms and set up a unity government with Fatah.

Syria, like Israel or the Palestinians, gives nothing away for free. For the revival of ties with the United States it pays in hard currency at the Iraqi border, and by avoiding any involvement in the Lebanese elections, which led to the victory of Saad Hariri's coalition. It will also require full payment for peace with Israel. Alas, on the Syrian front there is no detailed U.S. plan. Occasionally position papers from the past are brought out - ideas for a nature reserve that Israelis and Syrians can visit hand in hand, and dreams about visiting falafel stands in Damascus. None of this is new. The problem is not the nature of the dreams but the cost.

Last week Syrian President Bashar Assad said once more that Israel is not a partner for peace. This declaration was not intended for the Israeli people to press their government. Assad is addressing Washington when he says "take this recalcitrant player and start shaking him up." As far as he is concerned, he is interested in peace, but the client refuses to pay. On this front, a relatively easy one, Washington appears to be in no hurry. Assad is still suspicious, and George Mitchell, who met with him, didn't come up with the goods. But the most important reason is this American policy of "a little bit at a time." This approach holds that those who wish for a settlement freeze will find it difficult to survive a political process that requires the dismantling of settlements on the Golan.

But this is where this new policy's big obstacle may be hiding, as if it were impossible to make peace on two fronts. As if what is possible to do during war - to take on two or three countries at once - cannot be done in peace.

Making peace is not a bitter medicine that needs to be taken in doses. Multilateral peace talks have been held in the past; the impression is that even without a detailed plan the Mideast is preparing to give the peace process another chance. But this time Israel will find it very hard to say the Syrians and Palestinians are not "ready" for peace. The Americans have matured the Arab side quite rapidly, and Israel needs to hurry and respond in kind.

What we need is not a competition on who is a refusenik, but an Israeli diplomatic initiative. Not a debate on what can be built in the settlement Ofra, but a declaration in principle of a settlement freeze. Not a clinical evaluation of the degree to which Assad is serious, but the reestablishment of the negotiating teams, the rallying of Turkey to set up the venue, and a declaration of principles on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. There is no other way to start the overall process, and it might spur a revolution in the Middle East.