The Illusion of 'Syria First'

The Damascus channel must be reopened. This must be done in parallel with the Ramallah channel, not instead of it.

What do these nagging Palestinians want from us? They should be thankful that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he supports two states for two peoples. So what if he also swore that Jerusalem will remain unified forever under Israeli sovereignty, vowed that Ariel is an inalienable part of the state and promised that the Israel Defense Forces will retain control of the Jordan River?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not born yesterday; he understands that the prime minister does not really plan to continue the annexation of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City. It's clear that Netanyahu knows that it is unacceptable to thrust a long finger like Ariel into the heart of a Palestinian state. Surely he does not think that on the way home from Jordan a citizen of a sovereign Palestine would have to tell an Israeli security guard who packed his suitcase.

Why do we believe Netanyahu when he makes peace noises and convince ourselves that he is only pretending when he hugs settlers? If the prime minister has no problem making baseless declarations for a domestic audience, why should he have a problem making empty statements for external consumption? If the prime minister is willing to take Jerusalem's name in vain to appease cabinet members Moshe Ya'alon or Avigdor Lieberman, who can promise to Abbas that the Bar-Ilan speech, which was only meant to shake off Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is not just a ruse?

These questions are for the U.S. administration to answer. It will not do what it must until it squeezes out of Netanyahu a clear stance on how he sees the basics of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Special envoy George Mitchell wasted too much time on the construction plans in the Old City's holy basin, in Ariel, and in the Jordan Valley. The time has come for him to ask to see the evacuation plans for the Jewish settlements and neighborhoods east of the Green Line. If it turns out that the Palestinian part of Netanyahu's two-state solution resembles the Bantustans from the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, Mitchell will be free to get on with mediating other conflicts. We will know that the games of the "peace process" are over and we will prepare for life under an apartheid regime.

When Mitchell returns the mandate President Obama gave him to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, he would do well to also give back the mandate for reopening the Syrian track. Three prime ministers - Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak - encouraged Bill Clinton to bypass Yasser Arafat and try his luck with Hafez Assad. Netanyahu, too, tried his luck. What have we had since? Another intifada in the West Bank, another war in Lebanon, and another war in the Gaza Strip. How many days will Arafat's successors stay in power if Obama betrays them with Hafez Assad's successor? How long will it take for Hamas to take over the Dayton force after it becomes clear that the occupation has no expiration date?

It's hard to believe that the Syrians are willing to cooperate via yet another round of negotiations at the expense of the Palestinians. Just a week ago, Syrian Minister Bouthaina Shaaban criticized Arab countries for ignoring the suffering of the residents of the Gaza Strip. In an article in the daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the spokeswoman for President Bashar Assad wrote that the Americans' talk about a peace process "clouds the fact that the Palestinians are prisoners of a racist occupation, of collective punishment and genocide."

Every year since March 2002, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization have reiterated their support for the Arab peace initiative. Hopefully they will do so again next month at the Arab League summit in Tripoli. The initiative offers Israel normalization with all Arab League members in return for a withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967. It's doubtful whether the return of the Golan Heights will convince Assad to diverge from the Arab consensus and host an Israeli ambassador when his government perpetuates the occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

It's hard to exaggerate the contribution of peace with Syria to Israel's position in the region, especially to security in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Damascus channel must be reopened. This must be done in parallel with the Ramallah channel, not instead of it.