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(photo credit: AP [file])
At the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996 I was Israel's chief negotiator with Syria in a bilateral peace process heading in the right direction. At Wye Plantation we grappled with a variety of difficult issues facing our two nations.
But we hit a dead-end when Palestinian terrorism reignited, bringing about a right-wing electoral win in Israel.
At the time, I believed that the Palestinian process must pave the way for other regional bilateral tracks; indeed, during those brief moments in history - a lifetime ago - we had finalized and implemented the Oslo II interim agreements. I even began permanent status talks with Mahmoud Abbas in Taba.
Today the context and reality in which we live have changed. The Palestinian Authority is embodied by the juxtaposition of Hamas and Fatah. And the Lebanon war has taught us the need to adapt to new realities.
I have thus adopted a Syria-first attitude.
I believe it is imperative for Israel to penetrate and shatter the vicious triangle comprised of Iran, Syria and Hamas by creating an impenetrable channel of communication. This is our defense shield against future ballistic wars.
PRESIDENT Bashar Assad of Syria has publicly announced - indeed, several times over - that Syria is prepared to engage in peace negotiations with Israel. I have also received indirect messages from Syrian officials regarding the readiness of their president for dialogue with Israel.
During our talks in the mid-'90s we made important progress on the definition of peace, a concept defined by the Syrians as "normal peace relations." They were prepared for full diplomatic and consular relations as well as trade and tourism ties.
I strongly believed then, as I do now, that future relations with Syria will embrace a warmth and positiveness not manifest in relations with Egypt.
More importantly at that time, despite its perception of itself as the mother of Arab nationalism, Syria was ready to drive a comprehensive and regional peace in the Middle East, parallel to a Israeli-Syrian peace deal on the security aspects of future relations. I have confirmation from the Saudi royal family that this would be the case.
A security-related bilateral agreement established in principle - but not in detail - that a surprise attack by either side would result in demilitarized arrangements and their effective international monitoring. Naturally, the Syrians also demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, to which we agreed, conditioned by all Israeli needs being met.
A precise future peace border was not determined.
But we did agree that a bridge between the nations would be built, and that a bridging period in which cooperative ventures, specifically in relation to water, would be proposed and implemented.
I believe that these talks of winter 1995/96 should provide the basis for future negotiations. Prior to this, Syria must discontinue its support and hospitality to terror organizations, namely Hamas and Hizbullah; terrorism and peace talks cannot go hand-in-hand.
MANY INTERNAL counter-arguments have recently surfaced in relation to the Syrian track. Syria is perceived as both powerless and puzzled, not to mention extremist in its views toward Israel. Furthermore, the Palestinian issue seems to be more urgent.
To this I respond that the relative regional weakness of Syria is not a detriment, but an advantage. As to the Palestinian track, progress on the Syrian path of negotiations can only expedite the Palestinian internal decision-making process necessary for us to advance negotiations to the important two-state solution.
From a strategic and security perspective, the second Lebanon war has taught us that we live in a new age of guerrilla enemies, terrorism and the development of nonconventional weapons.
Our strategic defense policy should thus be a proactive peace policy in which our leadership takes the initiative. I also believe that Syria has every interest in peace with Israel, in terms of its own development and to evade its reputation as the pariah state in the eyes of most of the international community.
SYRIA IS a secular state run by an Alawite minority, and thus the Israeli and Syrian leaderships have pragmatic common interests. Israelis might find negotiations hard to embrace given the likely price of the Golan Heights. But both our leadership and our people must understand that the value of territory has diminished in this era.
Our leadership must lead our country to the right conclusions, rather than be led by public opinion.
The time to act is now. We must coordinate our movements with the American administration on the basis of an international conference in the region as proposed by the road map.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace.