Ehud Olmert is adamant. So long as he is prime minister, he insisted this week, the Golan Heights will remain part of Israel.
Since it is inconceivable that Syria would agree to a peace treaty with Israel unless it recovered the Heights, that would appear to mean President Bashar Assad is wasting his breath with his repeated recent mix of pleas for peace laced with threats of war. Already reconciled to waiting out the US administration of President George W. Bush, which placed him on the axis of evil, young Assad, it would seem, will have to wait out the era of Olmert, too, if he wants someone to talk to rather than fire at here.
The list of reasons why Olmert need not embrace the Syrian president's discordant overtures is long and impressive: The Bush administration doesn't want him to. The majority of Israelis, polls indicate, don't want him to either. The Syrians are insistent supporters of terrorism, hosts of the most vicious Palestinian rejectionists, missile suppliers to Hizbullah, allies of Ahmadinejad's Iran.
Israelis like the Golan, with its ski resort, vineyards and orchards, unthreatening Druse, stunning views, vital water supplies. More importantly, they recognize its unique geostrategic value; why return it to a nation that has used it in the past to attack us? The border is quiet and has been for years, so where's the imperative to give up that hard-won land?
If Syria heats up the border and comes to constitute a greater military threat, that's even more of a reason not to concede the territory. Relinquishing the Heights would enable Syria, champion of pan-Arabism, to lead a subsequent Arab push for Israel's elimination from a much-improved opening position. And even if Assad is sincere, the regime in Damascus could change overnight...
Compelling stuff. Yet many of the prime minister's cabinet colleagues - not only from Labor, but from his own Kadima, too - are unpersuaded.
Think of the dividend, they urge. The potential attainment of Israel's yearned-for "ring of peace" as Syria turns from foe to friend and brings Lebanon and other Arab nations with it. The reining-in of Hizbullah. The isolating of Iran. The potential to employ warning stations and demilitarized zones to minimize the risk of future conflict, and to institute border-crossing arrangements that enable continued easy access for Israelis to the Golan after a withdrawal. The potential benefits for moderation and progress with the Palestinians. The risk of regional war if the opportunity is not seized. The fact that, with realignment knocked out of alignment by Gaza's Kassams and Hizbullah's Katyushas, this government is in desperate need of an agenda.
For now, Olmert is brushing them aside. He's told them, albeit to limited effect, that he doesn't want them to so much as talk about talking to Assad. The Syrian president, he says, is trying to play up purported good intentions toward Israel as a means to alleviate American pressure amid economic deterioration, trying to compensate for the loss of influence in Lebanon, trying to distract attention from his regime's role in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. If Assad were really serious about peace, he wouldn't have his foreign minister talking about wanting to fight alongside Hizbullah (Walid Mualem spoke longingly this summer of his readiness "to be a soldier at the disposal" of Sheikh Nasrallah). If he were really serious about peace, he'd make like Egypt's Anwar Sadat and talk conciliation from the podium of the Knesset.
But seemingly rock-solid declarations on territorial matters have a habit of crumbling. Ariel Sharon, in the Gaza sphere, is only the most recent Israeli prime minister to make apparently definitive public statements about a refusal to cede captured lands only to change course 180 degrees. Yitzhak Rabin, for all his much-quoted remarks about the "inconceivability" of leaving the Heights, had nonetheless given Bill Clinton an "in my pocket" commitment, as the former US president wrote in his autobiography two years ago, "to "withdraw from the Golan to the June 4, 1967 borders as long as Israel's concerns were satisfied."
Speaking in the context of realignment and stressing a prime minister's need to constantly reassess his positions as realities shift, Olmert himself told this newspaper in his most recent interview two weeks ago that "the worst thing that can happen to any leader is to fall in love with what he has said in the past, overlook changed circumstances and continue to repeat what he said in the past only because he once said it. I am not made this way. I am ready to reexamine my premises every day, and see whether they are still applicable."
Hebrew University Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Moshe Maoz, biographer of the elder Assad and a leading Syria expert who strongly supports a resumption of peace talks, told me this week that while he wouldn't swear to the sincerity of Assad's peace professions, it was "the height of arrogance" for Israel not to "at least check him out." He added that, as far as he knew, which was quite far, Israel was not even sending out subtle feelers to gauge the Syrian president's intentions.
Despite his charisma deficiencies and his faux pas - Maoz singled out, as the nadir, the president's 2001 entreaty to visiting pope John Paul II for Muslims and Christians to unite against the Jews - Assad had a savvy wife who gave him good advice, said Maoz, and plainly had a capacity for tactical political maneuver. Bashar - the son whose own father didn't want to succeed him, the would-be ophthalmologist who got dragged home from London to run the country after older brother Basil got killed in a car crash, the slope-shouldered na f from the minority Alawite sect surrounded by avaricious, ruthless generals who could have his stringy form for breakfast - had nonetheless survived for almost six and a half years, Maoz noted, didn't appear to be going anywhere in the near future and thus had to be reckoned with.
Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry and firm advocate of a Golan-for-peace deal, goes even further. Dr. Liel contends that Olmert will simply have to start talking to Assad, one way or another, within a few months. "He just can't go on ignoring these signals." Assad's idea of making nice is a trifle weird, Liel acknowledges. "He can't completely humiliate himself, so he speaks in terms of 'peace or war.' But he's essentially begging us to talk. And in the history of Israel, we've never said no to a head of state who begged us to enter a dialogue with him."
Liel is a member of the circle that insists Israel should and could have made peace with Assad senior at Shepherdstown in the very first days of the new millennium, a circle that widened drastically with the publication of Clinton's memoirs and their flat assertion that prime minister Ehud Barak doomed that dialogue because he "began to worry about the political consequences of giving up the Golan without having prepared the Israeli public for it."
(Clinton writes that "the two sides were not that far apart on the issues: Syria wanted all of the Golan back but was willing to leave the Israelis a small strip of land, 10 meters (33 feet) wide along the border of the lake [Kinneret]; Israel wanted a wider strip of land. Syria wanted Israel to withdraw within eighteen months, Barak wanted three years. Israel wanted to stay in the early-warning station; Syria wanted it manned by personnel from the UN or perhaps from the US... Israel wanted full diplomatic relations as soon as withdrawal began; Syria wanted something less until the withdrawal was complete... The Syrians came to Shepherdstown in a positive and flexible frame of mind, eager to make an agreement." Barak, by contrast, had "gotten some very bad advice" and wanted to "slow-walk the process" to convince the electorate he was being "a tough negotiator." The upshot: Failure.)
Today, says Liel, Bashar Assad could be persuaded to strike a better deal than Hafez would have sanctioned. He has none of his father's age concerns, nor his father's worries about creating a supportive climate for succession, and he needs the announcement of a deal more than its urgent execution. "He'd agree to a withdrawal over, say, 10 years," Liel believes. And there might be greater flexibility about the final border line, and its proximity to the waters of the Kinneret. "His father spoke of having fished there," Liel notes. Bashar toddled, at most. "The attachment is not the same."
Tel Aviv University's Peace Index this week found that 70 percent of Israeli Jews oppose a full Golan withdrawal for full peace, with only 16% backing that equation. Opinion polls notwithstanding, Liel believes Olmert would find it "easier to contend with domestic opposition to a withdrawal from the Golan than a withdrawal from the West Bank."
Indeed, Liel goes so far as to suggest that there might be a degree of readiness on the political right to accede to a Golan deal "because it might buy years of silence about the future of the West Bank, it might keep realignment off the agenda for the medium-term future." Unlikely? Even unthinkable? But what if Assad began seriously wooing Israeli public opinion - if he spoke to Israeli journalists, met with Israeli officials. What if he actually started closing the offices of some of those terror groups, booting out the Khaled Mashaals?
Asked by the Americans why, if he so badly wanted the Golan back, he wouldn't do what Sadat did to win over the Israeli public to a deal on the Sinai, and actually fly to Israel to talk peace, Hafez Assad would always reply that he didn't want to meet the same fate as Sadat, who was murdered 25 years ago this month. But what if Bashar was prepared to give Israelis tangible proof of his purported desire for peace?
The parallels are far from absolute; the Golan is not the Sinai, and the risks and implications of a pullback there are incomparably greater. But if Assad took up the challenge laid down by Shimon Peres this week and made a beeline for the Knesset, Israeli public opinion would certainly shift, albeit probably not as dramatically as it did when Sadat traveled the same route. Might Olmert, as he told the Post he'd done in sidelining realignment, feel obligated to "reexamine my premises"?