Zvi Bar'el / Israel Doesn't Want to Make Peace With Syria

With Damascus no longer isolated, Israel has no alternative plan that would put the blame on Syria.

After nine years of rule, Syrian President Bashar Assad can note with satisfaction that his situation has never been better. Damascus has become the main stop for senior American and European government officials. Lebanon, even without the presence of the Syrian army, is under strong Syrian influence and will form a government when Syria wants it to. Saudi Arabia has renewed its warm relationship with Syria after four years of stagnation, and internal Palestinian reconciliation depends quite a bit on Damascus.

Assad can chalk up another "achievement": In Israel there is no partner for peace. Assad is managing to persuade others that he is not the "unripe" leader for peace - Jerusalem is in refusal mode. This time it's not just a question of a stubborn Israeli prime minister, but an entire flock of legal jugglers who know very well how to foil diplomatic moves.

Until U.S. President Barack Obama came on the scene, Israel could depend on the theory of Syrian isolation to protect it from having to consider withdrawing from the Golan Heights. According to this theory, if Syria wants relations with "the world," that is, with America, it must sever ties with Iran, expel the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaderships, and neutralize Hezbollah's militia. Only then would Israel consider negotiating with it. The slight deviation during Ehud Olmert's term in office, in which indirect talks were held with Syria through Turkey, went out with a whimper. Now, with the crash of the isolation theory, Israel has no alternative plan that would put the blame on Syria.

The Golan Heights lobby, frightened by the Syrian-American rapprochement and expected pressure on Israel to withdraw, has quickly mobilized its legal efforts. It will not be the government and prime minister who will have to hold up under pressure, but rather "the law." And the law, as we know, is much harder to bend than a politician.

As in the Passover Haggadah, if the Knesset had been satisfied with the Golan Annexation Law of 1981 - dayenu, that would have been enough. Menachem Begin explained at the time that the law does not prevent negotiations with Syria, but even then it was clear that if Israel was not withdrawing from occupied territory, it would certainly not withdraw from territory it had annexed "by law." Then came 1999, which gave us the law mandating a referendum for surrendering sovereign Israeli territory, but in the same breath also determined that a basic law on referenda should be passed. Such a bill has not been passed, so according to opponents of withdrawal, the law has no real significance.

Then came 2008, when a bill passed in first reading, proposed by Avigdor Itzchaky, then coalition chairman under Kadima. It was very simple: There would be no withdrawal from the Golan. True, like every bill, it was carefully formulated, outlining possible conditions for leaving the Golan: a majority of 80 MKs in favor of withdrawal, which would release the government from holding a referendum; or new elections, which would obviate the need to forge an 80-MK majority. If neither of these prevailed, there could be a referendum to decide on peace with Syria. In short, no withdrawal from the Golan.

That's an easy bill to vote on. Now, after the delay because of the early elections, we have to see if the bill can be brought for a second and third reading, a decision that can be made in a day, even an hour. The matter was to have been discussed on Thursday by a special subcommittee of the House Committee and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The debate was postponed but not taken off the agenda, because now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants extra protection from expected American pressure.

This ostensibly is a legal, constitutional matter: Why does the public need to be asked after it has already decided in elections that brought in a Knesset and cabinet? Is it necessary to waste NIS 200 million on a referendum? Perhaps a referendum on non-peace, and then war, could be decided by text message? These are all certainly very important questions that have blurred the main issue: Israel is neither ready nor ripe, nor does it desire to make peace with Syria.