The Archimedes Lever Is in Damascus

Before Olmert begins running from one Middle East capital to another in his search for the coveted peace, why doesn?t he make an appointment with Bashar Assad?

His great desire for peace has driven Ehud Olmert to lose some of his control. At a conference in Petra last week he called on 22 leaders of Arab states to open talks with Israel, "with no preconditions."

"I invite them to come and talk," announced the prime minister. "If they want to invite me - I'm ready to go anywhere." Before Olmert begins running from one Middle East capital to another in his search for the coveted peace, why doesn't he make an appointment with Bashar Assad?

The Second Lebanon War demonstrated the negative turn Israel's strategic situation has been undergoing in recent years. The conventional wisdom that says Israel's capability to survive is unshakeable, a conviction that took hold after the Six-Day War, has been called into question in the last half-dozen years. The peace agreements Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan were successful implementations of the image it had acquired: a state that cannot be uprooted from its land.

No longer. Israel's deterrent power has been damaged. Perhaps it was the way it pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000; perhaps it's a consequence of developments in the Arab world in general and among the Palestinian public in particular; perhaps it's due to changes of mood among the Israeli public. Certainly part of it can be attributed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to power in Tehran and the nuclear threat his regime poses.

The results of the Lebanon war only intensified the turnabout. Israel's ill-wishers in the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian street, drew encouragement from Hezbollah's success in standing up to it. One sign of this process is the violent confrontation that has flared up again between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The new round of fire stems from local causes, but derives from the basic situation in which hostility to Israel has overcome the fear of its power.

Under these circumstances, the Israeli response slips into familiar patterns. Just as was the case on July 12, 2006 (then it was Hezbollah, now it is Hamas), the Arab provocation is perceived as obliging the IDF to respond with an iron fist. Now, as then, the public consensus is that there is no choice other than to defend with force the country's sovereignty and its citizens. Now, as then, both leaders and citizens see themselves as the victims of Arab whims and internal strife. The general feeling is that there is no other way to end the enemy's aggression other than by employing military force.

Without undermining the authenticity of this feeling, it is worth exploring an alternative as well - the one Olmert seemed to be pointing at in his speech in Jordan last week.

Perhaps the key to extracting Israel from its distress lies in Damascus. The Syrian leader is signaling his desire to begin a dialogue with Israel. He is not concealing the price tag attached to his offer: an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights.

Until now Olmert has turned his back on the calls for peace coming from Syria. He is not willing to give the Golan up. As someone preoccupied with fighting for his political survival, he knows his position would only weaken further if he showed readiness to negotiate over the Golan. He is also influenced by the White House's present position, which opposes any contact with Assad.

This approach can be understood, perhaps, from the prime minister's point of view. But how does it serve the national interest and how is it compatible with his call to each of the Arab states' leaders to open negotiations with him? Does he really believe that the Israeli public has forgotten that only five months ago Syria announced its readiness to open negotiations with no preconditions, and that Israel was the one who set a prerequisite (closing the Hamas offices in Damascus, stopping the weapons supply to Hezbollah)?

On the face of it, an agreement with Syria could be an Archimedes lever - it could dramatically improve Israel's leverage vis-a-vis Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas, and maybe even Iran. But this is an avenue that is not being explored, and for a reason known only to the prime minister.