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The Bush administration is driven by ideology. It believes that the United States has a mission to fulfill in a world of good and evil. In this respect, it is reminiscent of the Carter administration, which believed that the US's mission was to advance the cause of human rights in the world.
It is America's prerogative to demand that non-democratic states become democratic, and to believe that change can take place under such pressure. Washington has the right to boycott North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and anyone else it chooses. It is the only superpower in the world and it has the strength to back up such pretentious steps.
Israel is closely allied with the United States. Jerusalem benefits from its close relationship with Washington, and to a certain extent, albeit not completely, is also dependent on it. That, however, does not mean that we have to follow all its policies, at least not on matters crucial to our own national interests.
Each year, we are the only ones who vote together with the US at the United Nations on the resolution to boycott Cuba. Almost every Israeli government has been convinced that this is a mistake, and certainly that Israel pays a price for it. But all governments have decided to vote with the US as a form of modest payment for America's alliance with Israel.
It is a logical and pragmatic policy; however, it is not the right thing to do when relations with our own neighbors are involved.
IRAN, SYRIA and Hizbullah are parts of the "axis of evil" closest to us, and they are being boycotted by the US. This triangle has at least one component that "recognizes" Israel, that has a past of serious negotiations with Israel and that is willing to make peace with Israel - Syria.
Syria is a dictatorship, a police state. It provides asylum for Palestinian terrorist organizations, including the Hamas leadership and Islamic Jihad; it allows the transfer of arms from Iran to Hizbullah, and itself arms the Lebanese terror organization. Until now it has prevented the deployment of the Lebanese army to south Lebanon in the wake of Israel's withdrawal six years ago.
Immediately after the abduction of our soldiers by Hizbullah, I argued that the address for Israeli action should be Syria rather than civilian targets in Lebanon.
Syria participated in the Madrid conference in 1991, and also took part in bilateral talks with Israel in Washington when Yitzhak Rabin "deposited" his famous letter with Warren Christopher that stated that if all Israel's security demands were met, Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights. Syria participated in talks with special envoy Ronald Lauder that discussed far-reaching concessions in the Golan Heights.
The pinnacle came when Ehud Barak was prime minister, at the summit in Shepherdstown, in December 1999, which was attended by president Bill Clinton, Barak and then-Syrian foreign minister Farouk Shara.
Those talks were the closest we ever got to an Israeli-Syrian agreement, but they fell short when Barak decided that he would have trouble convincing the Israeli public that the Golan Heights were a fitting price to pay for peace with Syria. The Clinton-Assad meeting in March 2001 was the last diplomatic meeting held in advance of any possibility of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.
BASHAR ASSAD declared that he would continue on the path taken by his father and sign a peace agreement with Israel in return for the Golan Heights and a return to the 1967 lines.
But Assad's inflammatory rhetoric and actions have meanwhile alienated the US. He's supported Saddam Hussein, Palestinian terror organizations and Hizbullah, and likely had a hand in Rafik Hariri's assassination. At this point, there is no American ambassador in Damascus and no visits by senior American officials to the Syrian capital.
In the past two years, perhaps because of this American boycott of Syria, Assad has called for negotiations with Israel without preconditions a number of times.
Israel, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, rebuffed these appeals. It is the first time in history that an Israeli prime minister rejected a request for peace from an Arab neighbor. Sharon could do that, without holding a serious political discussion and without any real public debate on the subject, only because President Bush - because of American interests - took a dim view of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Late last week, the Syrian ambassador in the US was interviewed by Orli Azulay for the Yediot Aharonot weekend supplement. Among other things, Dr. Imad Mustapha said, "We will say to the Israelis: You occupied the Golan Heights and the Shaba Farms, the West Bank and Gaza. Stop the occupation; let us establish full peaceful relations and normalization in the region - enough with these wars.
"We have adopted the peace initiative put forward by Saudi King Abdullah, who proposed peace with Israel in return for the occupied territories. We proposed entering into dialogue with Israel, and it spurned us twice."
It is clearly in Israel's interest to break up the Iran, Syria and Hizbullah triangle. I am convinced that Syria would rather belong to the club of sane countries, and that its alliance with Iran is more the result of being pushed into a corner than the product of ideological or religious affinity.
Peace with Syria would lead to peace with Lebanon, and could change Israel's strategic status. The cost of that peace has been known for many years. Not paying it is far more costly.
The writer, an MK, is chairman of Meretz.