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Question #3

Syrian President Bashar Assad told Der Spiegel that he was interested in peace and had no desire to wipe Israel off the map. Do you agree with Israeli officials who dismissed the peace overture as 'double talk', or do you believe Israel should respond by initiating talks with Syria? Comments by Daoud Kuttab, Jonathan Rosenblum, David Kimche, Gerald Steinberg, Larry Derfner, Stewart Weiss, Michael Freund, Daniel Pipes, Isi Leibler, Jonathan Tobin and Barbara Sofer. Daoud Kuttab: For a long time Israelis have been saying that they are waiting for a peace overture from an Arab country (not the Palestinians) that is at war with them. This was highlighted by the famous statement of Dayan hoping for a phone call from an Arab leader. Now that Syria's indirect overtures have been ignored, it will be harder for any Israeli official to ignore this more public one. Of course Israel should respond to this statement. Years of ignoring Arab rights in the occupied lands doesn't make the other side give up on them as we have just seen in Lebanon. Syria is facing economic and political hardships. The difficulties facing them will move them closer to the international community's positions than away from them. It is in the interest of peace and security in the region not to allow any opportunity for peace to be thoroughly examined. Letting such an opportunity pass without looking seriously into it would be looked into one day with remorse. Small wrongs need correcting, too Jonathan Rosenblum: Mr. Assad is telling a lot of people a lot of things, without any great regard for consistency. In a speech last month, he declared that Hizbullah's victory has ushered in a new era in the Middle East - one that would witness the defeat of Israel by force of arms. There is no reason to believe that he has experienced a change of heart, or that his remarks to Der Spiegel were intended to do more than sow further confusion in the West. The Assads, father and son, have been eating American secretaries of state for lunch since the days of the hapless Warren Christopher, and the statement to Der Spiegel is more of the same. MK Yuval Steinitz has argued persuasively that the Assads could never agree to full peace with Israel. Without the Israeli enemy to distract attention, Syrians would rebel against the domination of the Assads' minority Alawite sect, which constitutes about 10% of the population. In any event, Israel is far stronger and more defensible with the Golan Heights - which would presumably be the main subject of "peace talks" - and without "peace" than it would be with peace and without the Golan Heights. Having Damascus within artillery range of the Golan has preserved quiet with Syria since 1973, and continues to act as a deterrent to Syrian adventurism from other directions. A peace treaty obtained at the cost of placing the Galilee once again within range of Syrian shelling - i.e., the situation that prevailed until 1967 - would likely be of short duration, and only provide the Arabs with further evidence of Israel's mad desire for "peace" at any cost and its continued susceptibility to any snake oil nostrum. Think Again: Self-scrutiny and the national will David Kimche: The knee-jerk reaction of circles close to the Prime Minister to the Syrian President's call for peace talks with Israel reveals a woeful lack of strategic thinking. By dismissing his offer as 'double-talk' and refusing to contemplate the possibility of reaching a peace agreement with Syria, Olmert is turning his back on an offer that could completely change Israel's strategic situation. A 'yes' to the offer could have far-reaching ramifications - expulsion of Hamas from Damascus, ending Syrian support for Hizbullah, breaking the link between Iran and Hizbullah and eventually, provided that the Americans would renew contacts with the Syrians, it would wean Syria away from Iran and weaken Iran's efforts to attain hegemony in the Middle East. The alternative to moving forward with the Syrians is another war down the road with Hizbullah, and eventually a Hizbullah-style war with the Syrians on the Golan.
  • Put away the long knives, and move forward Gerald M. Steinberg: If public declarations by Arab leaders led to peace agreements, the conflict would have been resolved long ago. But such processes require far more than a few hints and perceived changes in nuance. During the era of the late Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, eager international mediators frequently returned from Damascus with news that we were on the edge of an historic breakthrough. But Father Assad was apparently more interested in the potential benefits of the peace process than in the outcome. There is no evidence that son Bashar will do more. He is very weak, personally and politically, and is struggling to cope with a dead economy, a rusting military, expulsion of Syrian forces from Lebanon, UN investigation of the regime's role in the assassination of Lebanese PM Hariri and similar attacks, and signs of internal disquiet. To convince skeptical Israelis that he was serious about peace, Bashar would have to make some dramatic moves - a Sadat-like visit to Israel; ending arms shipments to Hizbullah; cutting ties with the Iranian regime; and expelling Palestinian terror leaders. Israel can welcome the statements about peace, but no response is required until they are matched by compatible action. Ken Roth's blood libel Larry Derfner: If Israel can get peace with Syria in return for the Golan Heights - but without giving Syria access to the Kinneret, which is the Syrian demand that killed the peace talks in 2000 - then we should go for it. The Syrians have kept the separation-of-forces agreement on the Golan, just as Egypt and Jordan have kept the peace; Arab states that have signed treaties with us have proven reliable, it's only the Palestinians who haven't. Even Netanyahu, as prime minister, offered Hafez Assad the Golan in return for peace; Israelis, I'm sure, would go for such a deal once it was hatched. The Olmert government should check out if Bashar Assad is willing to trade peace for the Golan without any access to the Kinneret. If he is - which is unlikely - Israel should enter negotiations with him. If he's not, Israel should stay away, because failed peace negotiations would be worse than none. What irritates me, though, about Israel's latest "no" to Syria is the strong possibility that it's motivated mainly by the fear of upsetting the blowhard Bush administration, with its "axis of evil" obsessions. Rattling the Cage: Saturday at the zoo Stewart Weiss: What motivation, if any, do we have to initiate talks with Syria? The Golan is our quietest sector, providing us with a vital security buffer as well as safeguarding a major source of our water supply. It is also one of the most beautiful areas in Israel, and a haven for home-grown tourism. The Syrians have told us on numerous occasions that their demands at any peace table will be maximalist: All of the Golan returned to Syrian hands, up to the banks of the Kinneret. Why do we have to voluntarily enter that minefield? If ever there was a case when Israel needed to receive good-will gestures rather than give them, then this is it: Let Assad shut down all the many terrorist offices he allows in Damascus, and block the transfer of arms to Hizbullah by sealing the border with Lebanon. Then we can talk. 'Transplanted' to Israel Michael Freund: For a guy who says that he doesn't want to wipe Israel off the map, Syrian President Bashar Assad sure has a funny way of showing it. In addition to aiding Hizbullah, which rained thousands of rockets down on Israeli civilians this past summer, Assad has transformed his capital city into a regional hub for terror groups and anti-Israel activity. New York may be known for Broadway, and Paris for the Eiffel Tower, but Damascus has become notorious for one thing: hosting rejectionists such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the Arab League's Office for the Boycott of Israel. Assad is an enemy of Israel and the US, and he has demonstrated this time and again. Just last year, Syria and Iran publicly declared that they were forging "a common front" against the West. Assad has stirred up regional instability, assisting the insurgents in Iraq responsible for killing American soldiers, and he has also been linked to the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. Israel was right to laugh off his interview with Der Spiegel, which was merely a transparent propaganda exercise. With the likes of Assad, what counts is not what he says - but what he does. And what he does is nasty, indeed. A year of patriotism and prayer Daniel Pipes: I agree with those Israelis who dismiss these overtures as meaningless. Off and on since 1991, when the Syrian leadership has perceived itself in trouble, it has turned to negotiations with Israel as a way out of its difficulties. Until there is a change of heart in Syria, as indicated by normal relations and other signals, diplomacy is basically useless or even counterproductive. As I argued in the 'Post' in early August, a better approach is to hold Damascus responsible for troubles coming out of Lebanon. The pope & the Byzantine emperor Isi Leibler: By any definition Syria is a major sponsor of international terror. Indeed Syria's support for Hizbullah during the Lebanon war could have represented a causus belli for us. President Basher Assad, an unstable dictator, was undoubtedly speaking with a forked tongue when he recently remarked that he had no desire to wipe Israel off the map. But unlike terrorist bodies like Hizbullah and Hamas, Syria is a sovereign state. It is wrong for us to outright reject any offer to negotiate peace by hostile neighbors. In the past it was always the Arab states that rejected our offers to talk to them. We should have imposed a proviso on the Syrians: That they freeze the flow of arms to Hizbullah and restrict the activities of the terrorists operating from Damascus. In all probability they would refuse. But the international community could not then distort our desire for peace or condemn us for refusing to negotiate with a state actively directing terrorist acts against us. For a year of people power Jonathan Tobin: Syria is not interested in peace with Israel. Syria is interested in American and European attention. Iran's nuclear potential and its hate-spewing president are in the spotlight at the United Nations. Hizbullah is still basking in the adulation its "victory" over Israel in this past summer's war. Even the Palestinians are still able to get some headlines with the debate about whether a Hamas-Fatah coalition means anything. But Syria is still the wallflower at the global dance. If Syria were genuinely interested in peace, it could throw Palestinian terror groups out of Damascus, cut off the pipeline of support for Iraqi insurgents and cease being the middle man in the Teheran-Hizbullah partnership. But given the nature of the Damascus regime and the Assad family/Alawite firm that runs it, we know that won't happen. The fallacy of promoting talks is that the dynamic inevitably involves Western or Israeli appeasement of rogue regimes in exchange for nothing. If Syria wants to embrace peace, it can. But being drawn into talks about the possibility is a signal of their belief in our gullibility, not a change of heart. The last thing that the United States should do would be to prop up Assad by allowing him to play the role of Arab "moderate." And despite the temptation to try and deflect attention away from its own troubles with a new peace initiative, Israel's embattled government would be wise not to fall into the same trap either. View from America: The next catastrophe waiting Barbara Sofer: It's more than double talk, it's triple talk. The Syrians are looking for world PR and at least we're not foolish enough to fall for this. Talk is cheap. Let's have deeds. Let him intervene and bring back Ron Arad, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev and then I'll be in the street to welcome him when he arrives like Sadat at the Knesset. The Human Spirit: A Sicilian lesson
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