What Netanyahu Really Wants

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Syrian President Bashar Assad and can't contain himself. Here is the hostile neighbor from the north that for so many years worked so hard to fill the role of cruel and dangerous enemy. And now it's suddenly becoming a peace-loving country. Assad doesn't stop offering Israel negotiations; this week he even dropped the demand that Israel give up the entire Golan Heights in advance. This is causing Netanyahu sleepless nights. He realizes that the price of peace is giving up the Golan, and this is precisely what he is not willing to pay.

Netanyahu also knows that such a move would endanger his chair - and that's the last thing he wants.

It's also the reason he didn't block the decision by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and the vote in the Knesset this week that approved the bill requiring a withdrawal from the Golan or East Jerusalem to be approved in a referendum. Now it's quite clear to Assad and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that there is no one to talk to, because how can you sit down to talks when the deal is not final but dependent on the votes of "Big Brother" participants Shifra Kornfeld and Maayan Hodeda?

The decisions by the government and Knesset teach us that Israel prefers the Golan Heights without peace to peace without the Golan heights. Proof of this can be heard in the cries of joy by right-wing Knesset members and the heads of the Golan settlers. They understand very well that the need for a referendum destroys any possibility of negotiations.

Netanyahu doesn't want to give up an inch. Anything else is mere tactics and maneuvering vis-a-vis U.S. President Barack Obama. This can clearly be seen in his decision to "freeze" construction in the settlements at a time when the number of building permits for the freeze's 10 months stands at many thousands and the budget for isolated settlements - those outside the settlement blocs - is being increased.

The prime minister is slavishly devoted to targeted killing via referendum. It was he who proposed in 2005 to hold a referendum on the disengagement - in order to torpedo it. He figured then that the right and religious public would go from door to door and invest millions in propaganda, while the center and left would doze quietly, expecting that the government would do the work for them. Netanyahu also understood that until the referendum question was formulated and the appeal processes completed, many months would pass and Ariel Sharon would lose his momentum, status and majority. Thus the withdrawal would be thwarted.

But then Netanyahu had to face a real leader who was not afraid of his party rebels and did not consider holding onto his chair the be-all and end-all. Sharon contemptuously rejected the idea of a referendum and carried out the withdrawal that extricated Israel from the treacherous and bloody quagmire of Gaza. That's how David Ben-Gurion acted in the 1950s when he rejected pressure to hold a referendum over reparations from Germany.

The idea of a referendum is mistaken because Israeli democracy is a representative democracy, not a direct one. The public elects its parliament, which elects its government. The task is to make tough decisions and not roll the ball back into the public's court. We elect a leader so he will change reality, take chances and make unpopular decisions, with a view to the future, not someone who decides things based on public opinion. If we wanted such a leader, we would appoint as prime minister a computer that calculates public opinion and makes decisions using text messages.

Every prime minister has realized that a peace agreement with Syria would be a strategic asset for Israel. So Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert held talks with the Syrian president, contacts that did not ripen into an agreement. All these prime ministers were aware that Israel's most dangerous enemy is Iran, which is developing a nuclear capability. They were aware that Syria is that country's strategic ally.

So it is clearly -in Israel's interest to separate Syria from Iran. A peace deal under an American umbrella would be the start of such a separation. That's what happened with Egypt in the wake of the peace agreement with Anwar Sadat.

Moreover, Israel's basic struggle is against Muslim fundamentalism and religious fanaticism; against groups like the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria is a natural ally for this because it has a secular (Alawite) regime that is fighting against those same forces.

Israel is a strange country. If a rival attacks us and conducts a war of attrition, we say we must not sit down to negotiations until it puts down its weapons. But if the rival maintains calm on the border, as is the case on the Golan Heights, we say we should not rush to make concessions because things are quiet.

The danger is that Assad could one day conclude that he has no hope of getting back the Golan through negotiations and will turn the Heights (and perhaps our entire country) into an arena for terror, attrition and losses, like Sadat did in the Sinai.

But Netanyahu is not concerned. Because until that happens, he will achieve his central aim - to keep his chair.