Syria and Palestine First

We should talk to everyone, about everything, all the time. After all, Olmert claims he accepts the principles of the Arab peace initiative, which calls for full peace in exchange for all the territories. To receive concessions we need negotiations.

Once every few months the reports about the negotiations with the Palestinians are replaced by news about the Syrian channel. The news this week was that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told foreign correspondents he is willing to make peace with Syria and expressed hope that circumstances will be ripe for renewed talks with Damascus.

This was preceded by leaks about secret contacts mediated by Turkey and open messages via Russia. Again the politicians are repeating the argument that it is easier and safer to do business with Syrian President Bashar Assad's sovereign regime than with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' weak government. Again the pundits are writing that Jerusalem's rapprochement with Damascus will keep Syria away from Tehran, undermine Hezbollah's strength and restrain Hamas. Four birds with one set of negotiations.

And again, before we discover whether this time we are talking about genuine developments, the call "Syria first" is being heard. Until next time.

Thus the Syrian option is hovering in the political atmosphere and conveying the sweet illusion that if the Palestinian channel is blocked, Israel will not be bereft.

Around the corner awaits a more attractive Syrian bride. First we will sign a peace treaty with Syria, and eventually, when the Palestinians turn into Finns, as Dov Weissglas said (as though the Syrians are Swedes), we will talk to them about what remains of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It would be irresponsible to repeat the strategic mistake of Ehud Barak, who put then-PA chief Yasser Arafat on ice until the treaty with Hafez Assad ripened.

With Syria, Israel has a border conflict (until proven otherwise). On the other hand, the conflict with the Palestinians touches on the roots of the state's ethnic national identity and its symbols.

Jerusalem is sacred to the Arabs, including the Palestinians, unlike Majdal Shams. A peace treaty with the Palestinians, which would offer a consensual solution to the dispute over the Temple Mount, would bring about a significant change in Israel's relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

It is difficult to assume that such a change would take place in the wake of peace with Syria, at a time when the bloody conflict with the Palestinians continues, centering on the question of Jerusalem and the refugee problem.

Let's assume Barak had not gotten cold feet at the last moment and had returned home in January 2000 from the Shepherdstown talks with a peace treaty with Syria. The central item then-president Bill Clinton submitted to the parties in the draft agreement was a full withdrawal form the Golan.

After Syria had received the Golan Heights, to the last meter more or less, Arafat would have been pushed into toughening his stance on the territorial issue in general and Jerusalem in particular.

At present the confrontation with Hamas limits the margins of Abbas' concessions even further.

On the other hand, boycotting Syria does not promote progress in the Palestinian channel, to put it mildly. The threads from Damascus (and Tehran) lead to the bastions of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. From there they infiltrate the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and here and there they also reach the Arab community in Israel.

The question is therefore not whether Israel is interested in renewing diplomatic negotiations with Syria and opening the way to an agreement with Lebanon. It is hard to exaggerate the value of a peace treaty with an Arab country on the Israeli border that is stockpiling long-range missiles.

Even if Syria does not hurry to part from Iran and sever its connections with Hezbollah and Hamas, an end to the conflict between it and the Jewish state would be an achievement for the pragmatic axis (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) in its difficult struggle with the extremist Sunni-Shi'ite axis.

It may turn out Assad is interested only in negotiations and not their outcome. But Olmert must put the seriousness of the Syrian president's intentions to a real test.

We should talk to everyone, about everything, all the time. After all, Olmert claims he accepts the principles of the Arab peace initiative. It says there: a full peace in exchange for all the territories. Without exceptions. To receive concessions we need negotiations.