Thanks to Sol Salbe for once again pointing out two sizzling stories in the Israeli media about Israel’s tortured relations with Syria. Both point to the absolute bollocks Ehud Olmert is making of that relationship by refusing outright to even discuss peace with the Syrian leadership.
Haaretz’s TV critic writes about an appearance by senior Arab affairs correspondent, Ehud Yaari (Hebrew version), on an Israeli public affairs show, Ulpan Shishi (Studio Six). The critic writes that according to Yaari:
“Syria has presented Israel with an offer which is nothing short of sensational: In return for a withdrawal from the Golan Syria is willing to sign a peace agreement, distance itself from Iran and Hezbollah, give up its demand for access to the Sea of Galilee, and even accept a “lengthy process” for the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan’s major town of Katzerin. No matter which way you look at it, this is a surprisingly generous offer, one that simply cannot be refused. It is difficult to see how Ehud Barak would have knocked it back were it the offer of the table during his negotiations with the Syrians. Even Ya’ari himself recommends accepting it.”
Yaari described his source as a senior Syrian military officer involved with the earlier 2000 round of Israel-Syrian peace talks. I’d say a pretty reliable source.
But a curious thing happened on the show. No one engaged Yaari in serious discussion about the subject. No government representative was invited to respond to his report. Basically, the report sunk like a lead balloon. And this is precisely the problem with the current situation. As the Bible says: “Peace, peace–but there is no peace.” As far as peace is concerned, Israel doesn’t know the meaning of the word (to paraphrase Mose Allison).
One of Israel’s foremost enemies, with whom it has fought two outright wars and several proxy wars, has done the equivalent of walking from Damascus to Jerusalem, standing on bended knee outside the PM’s residence, ringing his doorbell and presenting him on a silver platter the peace that Israel claims it has longed for since 1967. And what does Olmert do? He says: “Uh, could you hold on a minute. I need to talk to my boss (the U.S.) and get his permission before I can even talk to you.” Does this make sense? And when an Israeli commentator like Yaari with impeccable and sober credentials buttresses this view his fellow media pundits yawn and go on to the next subject. There is something wrong with this picture.
Which brings us to Uri Savir‘s warning against sticking with the U.S. demand that Israel turn a cold shoulder on Assad:
Former Israeli governments always announced they would not bow to American pressure…[on] Israel to make far-reaching concessions in order to advance peace.
Today America is applying a different type of pressure aimed at preventing Israel from making concessions that would enable moving the peace wagon forward. But we shouldn’t succumb to pressure of this type either…
Regarding Syria, President Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unequivocally oppose Israeli-Syrian negotiations. We, however, have a strategic interest in dismantling terror in Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. This we can do by means of diplomatic negotiations with the Syrians, a proposal occasionally being made by Syrian President Assad.
…We would do well to engage in negotiations with Syria in order to create leverage for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, which would guarantee Israel’s security.
Bush administration’s policies are aimed at…[promoting] democracy and ridding [the world] of terror so that…countries…become part of the pro-Western spectrum. To this end, pressure is being exerted on various countries [Iran and Syria] and attempts are being made to undermine their legitimacy.
Israel’s interests, however, are different, particularly after the second Lebanon war when diplomatic settlements potentially became Israel’s defensive shield. Once again we must not succumb to American pressure. In today’s reality, we have to demonstrate more flexibility than is expected by our great friends.
Israel and the U.S. have a very strange relationship. When Israel feels it is in its own interest to be more hawkish and bellicose than the U.S. would wish it goes its own way and essentially thumbs its nose at us. But when conditions call for Israel to be dovish and make concessions it first feels it necessary to ask U.S. permission before taking any action. I don’t quite understand why there is obstreperousness in the first case and obsequiousness in the second.
Is it possible that Olmert is worried that if he goes against Bush’s directive and does negotiate with Syria and there is another conflict with an Arab party like Syria or Lebanon–that the U.S. will wash its hands of Israel and force it to go it alone? If that does enter into Olmert’s calculations, then he is not taking into account that there will be a new president in power in two years. That president will likely not be influenced in his attitude toward Israel by its refusal to heed a command from the Bush Administration. In fact, if it’s a Democratic Administration, Israel’s refusal to heed Bush might be a plus rather than a demerit.
In any case, I urge Olmert to get fire in his belly and sit down and talk with Assad. It’s unlikely he has the political vision or courage to do so. But stranger things have happened.
I hesitate to say I understood the mind of Ariel Sharon enough to predict what he’d do in this situation. But it’s nice to think that a man with enough guts to disengage from Gaza after maintaining for decades he would never do so; would have the smarts to negotiate with Syria after he personally fought in two wars against it. Sharon was a far from ideal political leader. But he was willing to do the surprising and gutsy thing if he thought it would be good for Israel. Even he would see, I believe, that it could be good for Israel to talk to Syria.
And Sharon, who had sixth sense for appraising his enemy’s strong and weak points, would easily size up Bush’s current feeble position and realize that bucking him would cause Sharon and Israel no long-term harm.