The Last Moment

There is a reasonable possibility of removing Syria from the cycle of combat with Israel, but this possibility bears an expiration date.

Never have the Israel Defense Forces been so dovish. The senior command is cautious. It is aware of the fact that in a democratic country the political leadership makes the political decisions. But the position that it is now presenting to its superiors is unequivocal: For the Syrian issue this is the last moment.

There is a reasonable possibility of removing Syria from the cycle of combat with Israel, but this possibility bears an expiration date. A determined Israeli leadership can work with the new American leadership to be elected in November to reach a peace agreement with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the spring or summer of 2009. However, if the Israelis and the Americans do not act with urgency and determination, the opportunity is liable to be lost. Just as Israel missed an opportunity vis-a-vis Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the fall of 1972, and just as it missed an opportunity vis-a-vis Assad Sr. in the spring of 2000, it is liable to miss the opportunity of Assad Jr. Barbara Tuchman had a word to describe missed opportunities of this type. She called them "folly."

The defense establishment believes that the present folly is liable to be revealed as particularly foolish. The Middle East is not an attractive place these days. In 2003, the region saw Iraqi president Saddam Hussein disappear, Libya's Muammar Ghadhafi become moderate and Iran postpone its nuclear program for a while. On the other hand, during the past year Iran has been moving into higher gear, the Shi'ites are on the ascendant, Lebanon is under the growing influence of Hezbollah and Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.

A negative historical process was reinforced by American and Israeli mistakes. As a result, clouds pile up on the horizon. No, there is no danger of an immediate war with Syria, despite the strengthening of Hezbollah; on the northern front Israel is deterring its enemies. But if there is any step that could at present become a trend in the entire region, it is an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. Such a treaty would bring about a positive strategic change: It would isolate Hezbollah, cause difficulties for Hamas, threaten Iran and provide support for the concerned moderate forces in the Sunni Arab world.

Israel's defense establishment is not of one mind. There are various voices and opinions. However, the situation assessments on the desks of the prime minister and the defense minister leave no room for doubt: It is the men in uniform, of all people, who are recommending activism on peace talks. They are actually urging the political leadership to speed up the processes.

The men in uniform feel that Israel, instead of boarding the express bus to an agreement, is taking the local, and thus making innumerable intermediate stops and paying exorbitant prices, and the passengers meanwhile are throwing tangerines at one another. They are closing the curtains so as not to see what is visible through the windows and are not seriously asking themselves where they are headed. Therefore, the bus security guard is worried. He is aware of the limitations of his job, but also feels the growing burden of responsibility.

The key concept is discourse. Creating discourse. It is actually those who sit inside closed organizations and secretive systems who believe there is room to open and intensify the strategic discourse in Israel. Iran is the key issue, of course. We must talk about Iran. It is possible to find a way to conduct a balanced and cautious public discussion both on the subject of Iran and on the subject of the relations between Iran and Syria. According to one firmly held opinion, it is in Israel's interest to sign a treaty with Syria before the moment of truth with Iran. Others argue the opposite. All opinions should all be discussed. We must stop throwing tangerines, open the curtains and look around. Where are we headed? Where do we want to lead the State of Israel?

There is a considerable amount of satisfaction among top defense echelons today. The feeling is that two years after the Second Lebanon War the IDF has returned to itself. The IDF is training and becoming stronger and is confident of its strength. The calm in Gaza is also a pleasant surprise. Assad is well aware of the balance of power.

At the same time, however, there is a threat to the home front. And there are signs of a threat in another dimension: Iran. We must prepare for these two threats. We must discuss these two threats. The public must be told that it is impossible to put an entire country into a security room, but we should not sink into pessimism. It is impossible to deny that in the future we might see missiles fall here, but there is no reason for depression. Israel is strong and has a significant ability to shape the reality coming into being around it.

To do so we must act while the Middle East is in its present situation, and there is not a multiplicity of great powers in the world. Instead of dealing with nonsense, we must conduct a serious discussion of the necessary decisions. The driver and the passengers cannot place their trust only in the security guard. They must decide in a democratic and responsible manner where the bus is headed.