Time for Generosity With Syria

Is Assad weak or is he smart? Has he accepted Israel's clear supremacy or is he waiting for the opportunity to settle accounts and balance what's written in the notebook?

According to foreign sources, it was Israel that attacked a strategic facility in eastern Syria on September 6, 2007. According to foreign sources, it can be assumed that it was Israel that assassinated an arch-terrorist in Damascus on February 12, 2008. These two operations, both carried out on Syrian soil, have a great deal in common. They demonstrate excellent intelligence expertise, superb operational capability and policy sophistication. Since both of them focused on targets that embarrass Bashar Assad, they badly batter the Syrian president without him being able to react.

Within half a year, Assad was humiliated twice. Jerusalem smiled, Damascus gritted its teeth. After the failure in the summer of 2006, Israel is perceived as choosing the arenas convenient for it and areas in which it has the upper hand for flaunting its strength. In this way it seemingly restored something of the deterrence that was eroded by its failed management of the Second Lebanon War.

In the 1960s, Israel had a smart prime minister. In response to repeated Syrian shelling on the northern border, Levi Eshkol said that "the notebook is open and the hand is writing." Is Assad weak or is he smart? Has he accepted Israel's clear supremacy or is he waiting for the opportunity to settle accounts and balance what's written in the notebook?

No one knows the answer. The young Syrian president is a complex and unpredictable person. On the one hand, he is drawn to the provocative boldness of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On the other, he is fearful for the future of his regime. On the one hand, he takes big risks to challenge Israel. On the other, he behaves with utmost caution at critical moments.

Assad is not Ehud Olmert-Amir Peretz-Dan Halutz. He does not shoot from the hip and does not react hastily to provocations. So it is difficult to gauge when he will snap. There is no way of knowing when Israel's use of brute force will not deter him but induce him to support, directly or indirectly, a counteraction of brute force.

There is no way to know, but action must be taken. For the past eight years, Israel has not taken a genuine diplomatic step regarding Syria. Emissaries have come and gone, trial balloons have been floated, but a firm decision to extend a hand to Damascus has not been made.

Why? Because an unwise U.S. administration encouraged irresponsible Israeli governments to turn their back on the Syrians. Because the local peace lobby preferred virtual negotiations with a virtual Palestinian Authority instead of a concrete attempt to find out whether we can reach a true settlement with our northern neighbor.

Peace with Syria is not an enthusiastic prospect. It will neither vanquish settlers nor heal guilt feelings. It will bring the Syrians close to Lake Kinneret and cost us bed-and-breakfasts, fine wineries and cherished holiday sites. But peace with Syria will divorce Nasrallah from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, isolate Iran and surround Israel with a ring of cold but stable peace arrangements. In a gradually darkening Middle East, peace with Syria might light a torch of hope and create a meaningful strategic turning point.

If there is any truth in the foreign reports, the military operations in Syria were essential and justified, but their final test is still ahead. It is not certain that an attempt to arrive at peace with Assad will be successful. But the diplomatic paralysis is dangerous, and locking the gates is a serious mistake. Those who chose to live in the Middle East must always balance power with generosity. The time for generosity has arrived.